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date: 29 April 2017

Martin Luther’s Trinitarian Hermeneutic of Freedom

Summary and Keywords

Luther puts forth a Trinitarian hermeneutic of human willing and the will’s freedom. Luther’s thought in this area is best seen as a response to a problem that medieval theology inherited from Augustine. The puzzle concerns the conceptualization of divine and human agencies. Medieval theology, despite its commitment to emphasizing divine grace, articulated the reality of the two agencies in a way that practically, and then also conceptually, privileged human initiative instead. Luther, in contrast, returns to Augustine’s intuition, though not quite his language, and proposes that nothing short of a Trinitarian conception of freedom will do for the affirmation of human choice that, nonetheless, presupposes and defers consistently to divine initiative and support.

Keywords: Martin Luther, free will, free choice, freedom, hidden God, Trinity, Augustine

Martin Luther’s interest in the problematic of freedom belongs to a larger thread—or, more properly perhaps, a twine of issues—that runs through Western culture. It stretches as far back as Homer and then, beyond Luther, into the Enlightenment, only to find itself woven into today’s concerns, such as globalization and technology. Though Luther views himself primarily as a critical heir of Augustine, and considers freedom from an unapologetically theological perspective, it is as part of this longer intellectual trajectory that the continued currency of his views must eventually be decided. Even when Luther speaks theologically, he aims to address nothing short of the human condition.

The argument to be advanced here is that Luther puts forth a Trinitarian hermeneutic of freedom—perhaps not as clearly or systematically as he could, though more clearly than he is customarily credited with. In fact, for Luther, nothing less than a Trinitarian framework will do to account for both divine freedom and, relevant to our topic, the integrity of human agency as free. The divine-human relationship remains decisive for anthropology—but, it must be clarified, it remains essential precisely as the work of the Triune God.

Luther’s emphasis on divine triunity, where freedom is at stake, comes more fully into view when one considers the tensions that Augustine bequeathed to the medieval West and, in their light, medieval accounts of freedom as attempts to appropriate this Augustinian heritage. Seen from this angle, Luther’s thought is both a continuation of the medieval project of engaging Augustine’s legacy and a radical critique of it from the standpoint of the doctrine of God. To demonstrate this, this article begins with an outline of Augustine’s understanding of freedom, attending in particular to the anthropologically central notion of free choice. This is followed by an overview, necessarily brief, of medieval construals of freedom. We then highlight the central emphases of Luther’s account, as well as the manner they have been received by recent interpreters. This sets the stage for the constructive portion of this article, Luther’s own Trinitarian hermeneutic of freedom, which we articulate against the backdrop of the reformer’s critical interrogation of his medieval predecessors.

Augustinian Tensions

Ancient Greek thought, through its epic poets and tragedians, bequeathed to posterity the problem of the integrity of human action as in some sense determined, whether by fate, the gods, the law, or one’s own deep and tragic flaws. To attempt to free oneself from this determination, to act against it, was considered hubris and brought disaster in its wake; freedom was found, rather, in unconditional submission and abdication of independent agency. What complicated this picture was the emergence of the category of choice (proairesis). We find it, for example, in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (Bk. III) not only as a precondition of virtue (so as to exclude accidentally virtuous acts), but also a source of puzzlement, given that some actions can be simultaneously voluntary and involuntary, and thus not exactly or obviously free. But it is only with Augustine that the problematic of what constitutes human freedom, and indeed our humanity, becomes inalienably grounded in a full-blown concept of the freedom of the will, or free choice (liberum arbitrium). For Augustine and the Western tradition after him, free will becomes the fulcrum upon which to balance all other considerations pertaining to human freedom.

The centrality of free choice in Augustine’s anthropology stems from his early repudiation of Manichaean determinism. Human actions, especially blameworthy ones, have their own integrity and cannot be blamed away on sin as some alien power animating the person. One is responsible for what one does because actions, unless they are externally coerced, involve one’s own free choice. This said, Augustine’s evaluation of this fundamental anthropological category underwent a profound change in the course of his theological and pastoral career, leaving posterity with an essential and conceptually unresolved tension. This tension is evident in Augustine’s own Christian biography, marked by a pivotal change of mind. Even more importantly—and enduringly—it emerges at the intersection of theological polemics and pastoral insight.

To begin with the subjective dimension, Augustine’s journey from a Manichee hearer to a Christian adherent, pastor, and bishop not only underscored personal responsibility, but it also implied that, at least intellectually, one had the capacity to make a good choice, turn to God, and so determine the orientation of one’s being, even if complete moral reform called for divine aid. Augustine’s journey suggested that, if one were honest with oneself, God could not but eventually come into the restless soul’s view as its only enduring place of rest.1 The will, on this understanding, remains essentially the Adamic media vis, a midway force between reason, which points to the eternal God, and the fleshly passions that seek to entrap one in the present moment. It is a force weakened to be sure and infirm after the fall, but not stripped entirely of its divine dignity.

Augustine, however, began to have doubts as to whether the matter was quite so simple. He decisively changed his mind when faced with the moral rigorism of Pelagius and his followers. Where the Pelagians stressed the human creature’s natural endowment, especially power and freedom to choose, Augustine now came to insist that, without God’s special, enabling grace offered in Baptism, turning to God lies beyond the sinner’s power even to conceive, let alone accomplish. Augustine viewed the Pelagians’ exactitude and striving as a source of pride that compromised, if not quite dispensed with, divine grace. For Adam’s fall has left humans’ spiritual powers corrupted, prey to a deep-seated disorder, and in the throes of unbreakable habit. Illumination, therefore, will not do if the grace of divine love itself is absent, through which our concupiscent love is fundamentally reoriented.

The anti-Pelagian polemic had consequences for how the later Augustine conceptualized free choice. As anthropologically essential, free choice remains. But outside of grace it is only “liberum arbitrium captivitatum [captive free choice]”—able only to sin, and doing so with willful abandon.2 Thus, even though God does demand repentance and faith, the demand does not prove human ability in the slightest. That it entailed such a capacity was the argument of both the Pelagians and Erasmus in his treatises against Luther. For Augustine, however, God must first give what he commands.3 The capacity to initiate a relationship with God lies with God alone. A further, important consequence of Augustine’s view is that it raises the specter of divine determinism, elevating God’s foreknowledge and predestination to a theological focal point. Augustine did not shrink back from drawing the conclusion that God elected only very few from among the fallen children of Adam to be the recipients of his grace. The rest belonged to the massa or lump of sin. Abandoned to their concupiscent desires, they could not and would not escape eternal damnation.

The biographical tension between Augustine’s own deeply personal and restless journey to Christianity, on the one hand, and his theological declaration of utter human incapacity to turn to God, on the other, has also an objective dimension in Augustine’s theology. The African bishop’s mature position comes into conflict with pastoral insight. Since one has access only to one’s own willing, it is impossible to discern the effect of enabling grace on one’s will without actually taking the initiative and making moral effort, and only then ascribing its success to God’s prevenient grace. Augustine must, therefore, oppose the conclusions that flow from his account of God’s prevenient action by encouraging moral striving and hoping to elicit a response:

Do not wait until [God] wills it, as if you were going to offend him if you willed it first. For, whenever you have willed it, you will be willing it with his help and by his working. His mercy, of course, anticipates you so that you may will it, but when you will it, you yourself certainly will it. For, if we do not will when we will, then he does not give us anything when he makes us will.4

To prevent mulling over God’s judgments, since they are hidden and inscrutable, the initiative to avail oneself of baptismal grace and to undertake the reform of one’s life must, in practice, lie with the person. This alone helps practically to mitigate the uneasy tension between Augustine’s view of the incarnation’s healing effect on human nature, restoring humanity to union with God, and his offhand, chilling insistence on God’s damnation of the overwhelming part of the human race.

Medieval Resolutions

Medieval thought on free choice and its bondage, for all its variety, must be seen as a concerted effort to give a resolution to the Augustinian dialectic between grace (and so, divine predestination) and free will.5 Rather than seeing the dialectic in its inherited form as the final word on the matter, medieval theologians strove to grasp conceptually the very disjunction between the theological and the pastorally expedient and, in so doing, to assert their compatibility.

To begin with, Augustine’s medieval successors retain his emphasis on free choice as a fundamental anthropological category. The will, together with reason, is a distinguishing mark of humanity. “Man’s dignity is his free will,” insists Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153).6 Without free choice, there would remain nothing to be saved.7 In line with the earlier Augustine, for theologians such as Bernard and Anselm of Canterbury (d. 1109), free choice remains a media vis. According to Bernard, “free choice [liberum arbitrium], or in other words, human will [voluntas] occupies as it were a middle position” between “the divine Spirit and fleshly appetite” and may go in either direction.8 Or, as Anselm formulates it, since the will has two affections, or dispositions, it may be inclined to rectitude or act to its advantage (advantage, however, need not as such be evil).9

Likewise, in line with the earlier Augustine, one finds an affirmation of the will’s essential divine provenance and orientation. For Bernard, “freedom of choice” is also “something clearly divine, which shines in the soul like a jewel in a setting of gold.”10 This means, importantly, that free choice cannot concern itself with good and evil equally. Otherwise, as both Anselm and Bernard point out, neither God nor the angels could be said to have freedom of choice,11 and the faculty of choice, which constitutes humans’ very dignity, could not be credited to divine benefaction. Thus, as a reflection of God, himself incapable of evil, free choice is properly free only when it is actually oriented to the good, and to God as the ultimate good. This consideration leads Anselm to declare that “choice is not the same thing as freedom by which choice is called free.”12

Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274) helps clarify this relation between the middle position of free choice and its proper orientation to the good by distinguishing more clearly between free choice (liberum arbitrium) and the will (voluntas). The human will, Thomas explains, is an “intellectual appetite” that necessarily adheres to the last end, which is happiness.”13 Because humans are rational creatures, rather than animals driven by instinct, they desire happiness, and it is this desire that animates their actions. The desire as such is natural, meaning that this fundamental inclination of the will is not subject to free choice.14 Happiness, needless to say, is to be found in the “universal good” alone (i.e., God). However, without the certitude that divine vision brings, the will does not adhere to God, or to the things of God, of necessity.15 It misguidedly pursues the universal good elsewhere. Here free choice, as the “faculty of will and reason,”16 plays a role. Free choice is to the will as reason is to the intellect.17 Just as reason seeks to achieve—in a discursive and roundabout way and thus with proneness to error—what the intellect grasps simply, so also free choice seeks to reach by making judgments what the will already aims at as its simple goal. Aquinas’s distinction conceptually captures the tension between the will, on the one hand, as essentially inclined toward the divine and, on the other, as a power of choice between alternatives. It allows one to assert both.

Free choice operates through rational judgment, rendered in the manner of “taking one thing while refusing another,” all in relation to bodily inclinations.18 In keeping with the later Augustine’s emphasis on grace, the theologians of the high middle ages stressed free choice’s disinclination to follow reason and, even worse, reason’s inability to provide reliable guidance to the will. Without grace, reason remains weighed down by guilt and lack of happiness.19 This absence of freedom from sin and freedom from sorrow, in turn, impairs free choice, leading to a pervasive weakness of the will. Free choice falls prey to a “captive mind.”20 Without true wisdom, as well as full power to be happy, free choice is a far cry from freedom. In Bernard’s apt summary, “free will makes us our own”; it is inalienable from our humanity. Without grace, however, it inevitably becomes bad will and by its own doing becomes a slave: “it is our own will that enslaves us to the devil.”21 Freedom, against this backdrop, consists in the rectitude of the will—the willing of the true good. It can only be brought about by divine grace, as grace brings relief from sin and sorrow. Fortified by grace, the will is now reoriented to finding happiness in God alone. It then chooses rightly, willing justice for justice’s sake, as opposed to misusing justice for one’s own sake. In doing so, it wills what God wills one to will.22

Crucially, Aquinas’s distinction provides the ontological underpinnings for a noncompetitive view of divine and human agencies, which promises to eliminate the inherited Augustinian tension. The later Augustine’s emphasis on the bondage of free choice and the indispensability of grace can in this schema be subordinated to the earlier, and more practical, Augustinian concerns. Free choice, however bound, is always a matter of human action, and may now remain so, whereas the will, as the ground of choice, is the actual object of divine healing.

This noncompetitive construal becomes evident, first of all, in the effects of grace. What makes life, under grace and in subjection to God, true freedom is that God wills nothing but for the will to “be free for the purpose of willing rightly and preserving that very rectitude.”23 God sustains creaturely freedom. Aquinas finds the metaphysical underpinnings of this position in arguing that God, as the first cause, moves both the natural and the voluntary without impinging on their proper operations: “He operates in each thing according to its own nature.” God’s respect for the order of cause and effect is actually testimony to his omnipotence. It establishes the identity of things by allowing them their own purposes.24 Bernard offers a concise summary of the work of grace from this perspective: “grace alone … is [that] which arouses free choice, when it sows the seed of the good thought; which heals [free choice], by changing its disposition; which strengthens it, so as to lead it to action; which saves it from experiencing a fall.” He then goes on to emphasize that grace “so co-operates with free choice, however, that only in the first case [i.e., thinking] does it go a step ahead of it,” whereas, in willing and accomplishing the good, God’s work actually accompanies ours.25

Now, even when we affirm the simultaneity of divine and human operation, and with it the subjective priority of choice, an ambiguity stubbornly remains when it comes to prevenient grace. What is at stake is the manner in which grace can be said to be primary and go a step ahead. Consider the crucial role that understanding plays in the work of grace. For Anselm, “rectitude in willing something is given only to one who has the understanding to will and understands what he ought to will.”26 What Anselm is saying is that actual choosing, in the form of willing to will, is alone what one in practice has access to and what makes one open to the work of grace. Accordingly, Bernard emphasizes consent to God’s salvation as the proper mode of receiving it. Salvation, after all, has as its object free choice as that which makes humans essentially human. “No one is unwillingly saved.”27 In other words, it is in actual choice, as a manifestation of the will, that one must divine the work of grace. In the end, it is all a matter of attribution throughout. One attributes the choices one makes to the work of grace, considering it to be what has enabled those choices in the first place.28

The same can be observed in divine predestination. When the prevenience of grace is central, predestination naturally comes to the fore. On this issue, medieval accounts of divine foreknowledge and will, by and large, reinforce the noncompetitive vision of divine-human cooperation. Anselm can thus assert that foreknowledge and predestination are called so improperly, in that God is outside of time and, as such, does not foreknow or predestine because all things are present to him in their simultaneity.29 God, to be sure, knows all things. As known by God, all things happen necessarily. With regard to him, they are immutable. But God’s atemporal knowledge has no constraining or compelling character. With regard to human beings, things can be subject to change up until they happen, since God “foreknows [what to us are] some future things on the basis of the free will of a rational creature.”30 To be sure, Anselm does make a distinction between predestination in a strict and general sense. In a general manner, God “brings about all actions and all motions … no thing has any power for willing or acting unless God gives it.” This applies equally to the just and unjust will. “In the case of good deeds, he brings about both what they are and their being good, whereas in evil deeds he brings about what they are, but not their being evil.”31 Predestination in the strict sense concerns the selective bestowal of grace by means of which God gives rectitude to the will. Yet, as we have seen, even here divine and human agency retain their proper spheres of operation, which in practice, and it seems also in principle, places the burden on one’s own exercise of free choice.

Medieval theologies offer at least two ways out of this persistent ambiguity that insists on the utter corruption of choice and yet conceptually favors human initiative. The first is simply the acknowledgement, in later scholasticism (the so-called via moderna), of the will’s initiative. Already in Aquinas, there is recognition that the will is the cause of its own movement.32 Going further, Henry of Ghent (d. 1293) argues that the will is the ruler of all the other powers of the soul, commanding the intellect to consider what it wills. The intellect, in contrast, is not able to command the will33 and at best inclines the will in the manner of habit.34 This calls into question whether the will is moved by deliberation of means to an end. Henry actually argues that it would be utterly incompatible with freedom.35 Only in an unspecific, universal sense does the will necessarily move itself toward happiness. Henry further goes as far as denying the need for the concurrence of the will with divine operation as the prerequisite of the will’s being able to move itself from potency to act; God acts only as a universal cause.36 William of Ockham (d. 1347) goes further still and, along the same lines, denies that the will has a natural inclination that delimits its operation. William argues that the will is not naturally inclined toward happiness, with happiness presupposing the universal good and so also God. Rather, the will can act against happiness as impossible, it can deny both universal and particular goods, and it can even act for evil’s sake. Neither are acts of will, where they lead to sins of incontinence and malice, to be explained simply by ignorance.37 The will may actually act against full knowledge, although, as Henry argues, the intellect does possess a power of enjoining through persuasion and counsel. The voluntarist theology of the via moderna culminates in the injunction of Gabriel Biel (d. 1495) that one must first do one’s best (Fac quod in te est!) in relation to God. Even though such effort is not meritorious per se, God will reward it with an infusion of grace with which one then can cooperate fully (Facientibus quod in se est Deus non denegat gratiam).38 The will is thus freed of an ambiguous relation to divine grace. The initiative, however insufficient in itself, is determined to lie in the will.

Another path out of the ambiguity is charted by mystical theologies, according to which the final goal is the loss of one’s will, and indeed one’s self, in God’s. For Bernard, the highest degree of love, which he deems possible only through divine grace, is “[t]o lose yourself as though you did not exist and to have no sense of yourself, to be emptied out of yourself and almost annihilated.” But, importantly, this kind of love is only the last step in a journey that can be humanly undertaken when imperfect, human love for God eventually gives way to a properly divine love through a mysterious operation of grace. Bernard comments: “[I]n those who are holy, it is necessary for human affection to dissolve in some ineffable way, and be poured into the will of God. How will God be all in all if anything of man remains in man? The substance [of man] remains, but in another form, with another glory, another power.”39 This “journey of the soul to God” (Bonaventure, d. 1274) may take an explicitly ethical form. In Richard of St. Victor’s The Twelve Patriarchs (d. 1173), for example, ordering one’s affections—beginning with fear of God through grief over sin, hope, and love—is a precondition of the right vision of God. “If you are not able to know yourself, how do you have the boldness to grasp at those things which are above you [ea quae sunt supra te]?” Richard asks.40 (Luther will, likewise, challenge Erasmus’s preoccupation with the “things above” but, unlike Richard, he will do so on a Christological, rather than ethical, basis.) For Richard, the ascent leads from moral virtue on to rational contemplation only, at its apex, to call for the death of reason itself for the sake of immediate intellectual beholding. In Meister Eckhart’s theology (d. 1328), this letting-go of one’s self (Gelsassenheit) takes an extreme form. Even neighbor regard is repudiated, since ethical virtue is actually an obstacle to becoming nothing for God’s sake.41

What this all-too-cursory trajectory underscores is that medieval theologians certainly managed conceptually to articulate the compatibility between divine and human agencies and, in doing so, offered a way of conceptually grasping the dialectic of grace and free choice inherited from Augustine. But the resolution proved inherently unstable. Although medieval theology sought to affirm the bondage of choice and the need for grace, it was repeatedly thrown back on human initiative and eventually came to embrace it.

Luther: From Bound Free Choice to the Bondage of Choice

Luther recognized early on that a theology centered on the primacy and prevenience of God’s grace could not avoid confronting issues of choice and freedom. He came decidedly to oppose the late medieval theologies that explicitly made grace contingent on a human move. But, insofar as those had grown out of earlier attempts to articulate a noncompetitive relation between grace and free choice, Luther also realized that the Augustinian legacy as such called for a fresh conceptual approach, different from what the earlier scholastics had offered. By the time Erasmus (d. 1536) published his defense of free choice, De libero arbitrio (1524), against Luther, the reformer had long been at work to articulate a theology of freedom that did full justice to the liberating gospel of the crucified Christ. That the problematic of freedom formed the core of this undertaking had not always been obvious to Luther’s opponents. Hence, whatever else he wrote about Erasmus, Luther first of all praised him for addressing “the real issue, the essence of the matter in dispute [rerum cardo et caussae caput].”42

Luther, it is important to note, sees himself as a critical Augustinian, critical in the sense that he both privileges the anti-Pelagian Augustine and also considers it necessary to move beyond Augustine’s own theological legacy. As early as the Disputation against Scholastic Theology (1517) and the Heidelberg Disputation (1518), Luther both appeals to and defends Augustine, in order to oppose the late medieval dissolution of the Augustinian dialectic. He dismisses the notion that one can simply elect to turn to God and thereby initiate one’s salvation by preparing oneself for grace. This very possibility is what both Luther and his opponents understand as the contested and central issue regarding free choice (liberum arbitrium). Luther admits the position of his opponents is commonsensical, but for this reason, all the more dangerous.43 It makes choice into a purely self-determining media vis, which amounts to the claim that “the will is by nature free and can, without grace, turn to the spirit, seek grace, and desire it.”44 Without mincing words, Luther calls this “a special doctrine of the Antichrist [eyn eygen artickel des Endchrists].”45 In his initial critique, Luther follows Augustine’s notion of free choice as enslaved: “the will is captive and subject to sin. Not that it is nothing, but that it is not free except to do evil.”46 The will has only a passive capacity to do good in the sense that it first needs to be healed and made good.47

As he responds to Erasmus’s defense of free choice, Luther’s polemic proceeds, in part, also along these traditional Augustinian lines. He views Erasmus largely as an exponent of the via moderna. He castigates him for outdoing even the Pelagians and juxtaposes his views with those of the older theologians, whom he finds far more preferable. They (one can hear here an echo of Bernard) at least “attribute this divinity [i.e., grace] to the whole of free choice, but Erasmus only to half of it. They reckon with two parts of free choice—the power of discerning [vis discernendi] and the power of selecting [vis eligendi]—one of which they attach to reason [ratio], the other to the will [voluntas]…. But Erasmus neglects the power of discerning and extols only the power of selecting.”48 Erasmus does actually make room for reason (i.e., the power of judgment). But he ascribes to it a natural ability to grasp divine things, and in this sense renders it irrelevant to the question of the will’s movement toward choice. Luther rejects this view, and will do so again several years later, through a critique of John Duns Scotus’s (d. 1308) more sophisticated argument to the same effect. Luther denies that the will’s power to move itself can be established on the basis of an abstract notion of human love. It is illegitimate, he notes, and clearly against the consensus of the earlier scholastics, to extrapolate from the human ability to love oneself above all things to being able to love God above all things by arguing that the greater a good thing is, the more lovable it is.49 At bottom, Luther questions whether there is any power in the will, as if prior to actual willing, by which the will could move itself to will. The will simply is its willing, and there is no mean between being able to will the good and not being able to will the good.50 The will requires an intervention.

Luther’s reception of Augustine does not, however, constitute a call to return to the via antiqua. Though he certainly finds the teaching of Lombard (d. 1160) and those who followed him “far more tolerable,” in that it at least maintains the Augustinian dialectic, Luther ultimately withholds his approval.51 Despite his polemical edge, Luther was aware that, in truth, Erasmus’s definition of free choice was actually more guarded, and his stance, rather than directly reflecting late medieval teaching, seemed to gesture at a more conventional Augustinianism. “By free choice,” writes Erasmus, “we mean a power of the human will by which a man can apply himself to the things which lead to eternal salvation or turn away from them.”52 Erasmus goes on to explain that “the contribution of free choice is extremely small [perpusillum], and … this itself is part of the divine gift, that we can turn our souls to those things pertaining to salvation, or work together with grace.”53 Thus, Erasmus concludes, one certainly cannot say that “our will achieve[s] nothing, although it does not attain the things that it seeks without the help of grace. But since our own efforts are so puny, the whole is ascribed to God.”54 In line with Augustine and his medieval successors, the solution to the dialectic of divine and human agencies that Erasmus proposes is ultimately ascription.

For Luther, this is no way to magnify divine grace. Already in his early polemics with late medieval scholasticism, Luther begins to chart a conceptually different path that, in effect, calls for a rethinking of the Augustinian dialectic from the ground up. Consider Lombard. He defines choice as free “because, without compulsion or necessity, it is able to desire or elect what it has decreed by reason.” To be sure, after sin and before restoration, humans have a weakness toward evil, but do not have the grace toward good, and their actions are sins; but after restoration, though humans are still weighed down by concupiscence, they are not overcome and so are able to refrain from sin with the help of grace.55 In contrast, Luther moves away from asserting the bondage of free choice—understood throughout as a media vis—toward denying its reality altogether. “Free will, after the fall, exists in name only [res de solo titulo], and as long as it does what it is able to do, it commits a mortal sin,” Luther writes.56 Or more radically, as he insists to Erasmus, free choice is but an “empty name [inanis vox].”57 This denial of the reality of free choice is reflected in the title of Luther’s response to Erasmus: De servo arbitrio, “On Enslaved Choice” (1525). Luther believes this to reflect the spirit of Augustine, even though the phrase servum arbitrium appears just once in Augustine’s writings, in his late polemic against the Pelagian Bishop Julian of Eclanum.58 Even the earlier theologians thus meet with Luther’s sharp criticism. For none of them can say, like him, that “free choice is nothing [liberum arbitrium … nihil esse].”59

We must be careful here. Luther does not deny the reality of choice, as such. What motivates Luther to dismiss the reality of free choice, however enslaved, and emphasize instead the bondage of choice is, it seems, the realization that free choice is a concept that plays a vital role in the noncompetitive articulation of divine and human agencies. It supports a metaphysics that in advance assigns the human and the divine to their respective spheres of operation. This metaphysics, as Luther seems to sense, privileges human initiative either practically (despite ascriptive deference to grace) or conceptually (in which case, as in the theology of the via moderna, the metaphysics becomes undone). What Luther thus seeks to engage and reform is the very schema that, more broadly, affirms the possibility of securing divine grace through cooperation with it. He rejects its legitimacy as a viable conceptual resolution of the Augustinian dialectic.

In effect, Luther advocates going back to Augustine’s instincts and working out the dialectic without the baggage of medieval inconsistencies. It may still be considered a quibble about words when he asks, in a rather Augustinian fashion, “What kind of freedom is it that is always inclined to evil?”60 Yet already with this question, a different picture begins to emerge that takes a decisive shape in De servo arbitrio. Without fully articulating the character of choice, not to mention its freedom, Luther points to where he agrees and disagrees with his predecessors:

[I]f the power of free choice were said to mean that by which a man is capable of being taken hold of by the Spirit and imbued with the grace of God, as a being created for eternal life or death, no objection could be taken. For this power or aptitude, or as the Sophists say, this disposing quality or passive aptitude, we also admit; and who does not know that it is not found in trees or animals?61

Choice, for Luther, is not a media vis, temporarily enslaved. Rather, there is far more to choice than spontaneity. Choice is an aptitude through which one’s eternal destiny is realized in relation to the work of God.

How this relational aspect of choice plays itself out remains for us to examine. What must be added at this point is that Luther’s new conception of choice—in that it focuses on God’s work and removes the spotlight from human initiative and action—goes hand-in-hand with the assurance of one’s eternal destiny. Luther insists, as early as the Heidelberg Disputation, that denying free choice does not “give cause for despair, but for arousing the desire to humble oneself and seek the grace of Christ.… Yearning for grace wells up when recognition of sin has arisen.”62 Yet it is not that Luther simply seeks assurance of salvation and for this reason advocates a revision of the inherited metaphysics. Rather, he understands assurance, and the need for a metaphysical revision, to be a corollary of the gospel. Summarizing De servo arbitrio, he writes simply: “If we believe that Christ has redeemed men by his blood, we are bound to confess that the whole man was lost.”63 Luther’s understanding of choice requires a redemptive context and, as we shall see, a Trinitarian framework.

Luther and His Interpreters: Review of Literature

Before we develop our thesis, we must situate it against a broader backdrop. Luther, as we have noted, begins to articulate a sustained theology of Christian freedom in relation to medieval conceptualizations of free choice as early as the disputations of 1517 and 1518. The centrality of freedom in Luther’s early theology is, likewise, attested by one of the programmatic pamphlets of 1520, the most theologically constructive of the three, The Freedom of a Christian. Luther’s polemic against Erasmus in 1525 represents his most complex disquisition on the nature of free choice, though, importantly, free choice is far from being the sole topic of De servo arbitrio. Moreover, the work is, as R. Kolb notes, far from self-contained but must be seen in the context of the development of Luther’s thought.64 It is particularly important to keep in mind that it is chiefly a polemical refutation of Erasmus and only secondarily a presentation of Luther’s own view. Likewise, in the style of a medieval disputation, Luther makes use of scholastic terminology; yet even as he does so, he seeks to overcome some of it and put forth a more adequate, new language. What that language may be can arguably be gleaned from Luther’s more constructive engagements with the problematic of freedom in his lectures on Galatians (1531; published 1535) and, with De servo arbitrio explicitly in view, on Genesis 26 (1542).

Not surprisingly, it is De servo arbitrio that has attracted the largest amount of critical commentary, in part because of its philosophical, theological, and exegetical breadth. It has also proved to be one of the most controversial of Luther’s writings, producing divergent and contested interpretations. Nevertheless, virtually all commentators make a point of absolving Luther of the charge of determinism. A superficial reading may certainly raise the specter of theopanism, as it does for E. Przywara,65 considering Luther’s affirmation that God “works all in all” and his rejection, in this context, of the scholastic distinction between the necessity of consequence and the necessity of the thing consequent. Roman Catholic commentators, with some actual knowledge of Luther’s theology, are more careful. Their aim is rather to demonstrate that Luther’s thought broadly harmonizes with the orthodox positions of Augustine and Aquinas. This is the view of H. McSorley, who, though critical of Luther’s use of scholastic terms, enlists Luther as an ally in the rejection of late medieval semi-Pelagianism.66 Similarly, O. H. Pesch argues that Luther needlessly identified a contradiction between God’s omnipotence and man’s free action, since no such contradiction exists in the tradition. While praising Luther for his existential emphasis on divine grace and human freedom as belonging within the sphere of God’s activity, Pesch faults Luther for an underdeveloped conception of divine transcendence that fails to accommodate both divine and human action.67 Both McSorley and Pesch see Luther against the backdrop of Aquinas, glossing over Luther’s deeper metaphysical critique and Trinitarian reconceptualization of human freedom.

Among Protestant scholars, Kolb has drawn attention to Luther’s new theological paradigm. In place of the inherited tension between God’s action for sinners and human attempts to reach out to God, Kolb sees in Luther a different—paradoxical, mysterious, and insoluble—tension between two responsibilities, each total: on the one hand, God’s responsibility for our salvation, which elicits trust in God’s work in Jesus Christ on our behalf and constitutes our human being, and, on the other hand, our responsibility for our neighbor.

It should hardly be surprising that the doctrine of God has attracted a considerable amount of attention, though among Luther’s interpreters, there is more clarity about what Luther seeks to critique than what he constructively puts forth. K. Schwarzwäller argues that, with his conception of the hidden God, Luther intends to put an end to metaphysics as a mode of human self-securing against God.68 The hiddenness of God renders theodicy humanly impossible. E. Martikainen emphasizes that Luther’s conjoining of God’s will and foreknowledge with his presence and work in creation (Allwirksamkeit) serves as a critique of scholastic metaphysics, but is not in itself anti-metaphysical.69 H. M. Barth observes that the concept of the hidden God ranks in importance among the Reformation’s particulae exclusivae (the so-called solas). What it underscores is Luther’s strikingly modern evaluation of the will not as nothing as such, but as drastically determined.70 R. W. Jenson also notes the connection between Luther’s reformulated metaphysics of God’s being and the text’s rigorous systematic of freedom.71 Finally, along similar lines, G. Forde denies that Luther’s pastoral focus leads him to make exaggerated statements about God.72 Luther executes his God-centered argument with precision in order to make one object to it and thus demonstrate, through this objection, that the human will is in bondage, namely, that it does not wish to let God be God. Forde notes also that, in the exchange, Luther is the champion of freedom, whereas Erasmus, with his moral rigorism, affirms freedom ultimately only to take it away.

This appreciation for the metaphysical underpinnings of Luther’s doctrine of God does not come without criticism. Both Schwarzwäller and Barth find Luther’s articulation of the doctrine of God insufficiently Trinitarian. Though the entire work is about Christ and his honor, about the free, unmerited, and inconceivable grace of God the Father, expressed decisively and fully in Christ alone, the unity of God’s being is a problem. E. Jüngel likewise worries about the unity of God’s being, as he interrogates the connection between divine hiddenness and revelation in Christ. Jüngel argues that it is inadmissible to speak, the way Luther does, about the hidden God and the preached God. One must rather speak of the hiddenness of God’s alien work, whose nature and purpose faith alone grasps.73 A rather different take on the problem is offered by M. T. Mjaaland, who argues that the opposition between the hidden God and the preached God is not a return to a late medieval notion of God’s absolute power, which subtly calls into question God’s self-revelation, but is rather the opposite: “this original difference within God is … a critical destruction of myths and speculations concerning the hidden God, but also a destruction of ideals and wishes projected at the invisible.”74 What emerges is a critically reflective approach to salvation history that brims with political-theological implications and issues in responsibility.

P. Hinlicky brings the linguistic and metaphysical concerns of Luther’s work together with its doctrine of God. Like Kolb, Hinlicky sees Luther’s doctrine of the necessity of divine foreknowledge in terms of God’s responsibility for his creation, which God cannot renounce, not even in the face of his creatures’ unfaithfulness. Though Hinlicky regards Luther’s language as imprecise and hasty, often blurring Luther’s own distinction between the old terminology and the new theological grammar, Hinlicky sees Luther’s goal to be that of assuring martyrs suffering under persecution for their evangelical belief.75 Luther is certainly not viewing God as the sole agent; this, Hinlicky points out, is Ulrich Zwingli’s position. Rather, Luther argues for a deep connection between the will and the social and somatic self; the creature’s will is never neutral, or free. In this light, to assert the captivity of choice is to affirm a person’s situation within salvation history. In this connection, Hinlicky notes Luther’s multiple references to the Holy Spirit as the agent of freedom and liberated vision.76

Against this critical backdrop, we shall argue that Luther actually does offer a Trinitarian hermeneutic of freedom, or to put it more strongly, a Trinitarian ontology of freedom. He construes freedom as participation in the work—and thus also in the freedom—of the Triune God. To have one’s freedom determined by none other than the Triune God is to be truly free—for the sake of the neighbor.

Trinitarian Freedom

With Luther’s rejection of free choice as essentially a media vis, it may at first blush seem that, unmoored from its own sphere of operation, God’s agency now stands to overwhelm humans’. It is thus important to recall that Luther’s primary goal is not to deny choice but to dismantle the received metaphysics of human and divine agencies. He does this with the help of the received conceptual apparatus, which in the process is shown to be inadequate. Luther’s positive aim (this must also be kept in mind) is to affirm a personal (Hinlicky), responsible (Kolb), and ultimately Trinitarian character of God’s agency as the basis of human freedom. In this endeavor, Luther’s quest is for a new language expressive of an unabashedly cross-centered theology.

In his metaphysical critique, Luther stresses the active dimension of God’s omnipotence as it permeates the entire creation. “God moves and actuates all in all.”77 God’s omnipotence constitutes the formal dimension of God’s action, whereas divine foreknowledge forms its content. The two attributes find their actuality in the divine will. In God, there is no contingent will, for God’s being simply is his own ever-executed omnipotent foreknowledge, his will. God’s will is “the power of the divine nature itself [naturalis ipsa potentia Dei].”78 If this is granted, “then on the testimony of reason itself there cannot be any free choice in man or angel or any creature.”79 Creaturely agency is grounded and brought to expression in God’s ever-effectual will. For Luther, “it follows naturally by an irrefutable logic that we have not been made by ourselves, nor do we live or perform any action by ourselves, but by his omnipotence.”80

To reinforce this point, Luther rejects the scholastic distinction between necessity of the thing consequent (necessitas consequentis, i.e., simple or absolute necessity) and necessity of the consequence (necessitas consequentie, i.e., conditional necessity), or as Anselm puts it, “the necessity that precedes a thing and brings it about” versus “the necessity that follows a thing.”81 The distinction, Luther claims, at best asserts that God is distinct from creatures. But it does this at the cost of making (some of) God’s willing contingent and so, in light of what has been said, places God’s will at odds with God’s nature. For Luther, this is no abstract problem but concerns the gospel itself and God’s ability to make good on his promise. He asks: “how will you be certain and sure unless you know that he knows and wills and will do what he promises, certainly, infallibly, immutably, and necessarily?” With the same effect, but from an anthropological perspective, the distinction, as we have shown, offers an unstable reconceptualization of the Augustinian dialectic that favors human initiative. Luther maintains in response that “everything we do, everything that happens, even if it seems to us to happen mutably and contingently, happens in fact nonetheless necessarily and immutably, if you have regard to the will of God.”

It is important to note here that, even as Luther attributes something like absolute necessity to the effects of divine willing, he is quick to point out the limitations of the term “necessity,” especially its connotation of compulsion. This qualification applies both to humans and to God. “For neither the divine nor the human will does what it does, whether good or evil, under any compulsion, but from sheer pleasure or desire, as with true freedom; and yet the will of God is immutable and infallible, and it governs our mutable will.”82 In other words, choice remains as a human aptitude. What Luther wishes to affirm is simply that the divine will is what animates human willing; the creature’s will is not a reality that is self-positing or self-moved. That the creature wills at all flows from the fact that God wills the creature and its willing. This is, of course, well and good when we speak of willing that has the good as its object. God, Luther writes, “does not work without us, because it is for this very thing he has recreated and preserves us, that he might work in us and we might cooperate with him. Thus it is through us he preaches, shows mercy to the poor, comforts the afflicted. But what is attributed to free choice in all this? Or rather, what is there left for it but nothing? And really nothing!”83 However, questions must inevitably arise when it comes to evil. Luther is emphatic that even evil wills are animated by God’s willing; otherwise, God would not be God. The “will and nature of [the ungodly] … is not something nonexistent.” God, therefore, “acts in them as they are and as he finds them.” What inevitably appears objectionable is that the sinful will cannot by itself alter its willing. “God cannot lay aside his omnipotence on account of man’s aversion, and ungodly man cannot alter his aversion. It thus comes about that man perpetually and necessarily sins and errs until he is put right by the Spirit of God.”84

The Holy Spirit alone, Luther suggests, comes as an answer to the sinner’s predicament. God himself must reorient the will. Yet, because Luther has collapsed the medieval compartmentalization of divine and human willing, which assured room for the human will’s spontaneity, the question must inescapably arise of whether God actually wills the goodness of human willing in each and every case. Beyond God as known and proclaimed (Deus preadicatus), there now comes into the picture a specter of God hidden in his majesty (Deus absconditus in maiestate sua), who apparently “wills life, death, and all in all,”85 without regard to the condition of the human will, and who thereby appears to damn many. Luther’s rejection of the received metaphysics of divine and human agencies thus renders theodicy impossible. “This is the highest degree of faith,” Luther avers, “to believe him merciful when he saves so few and damns so many, and to believe him righteous when by his own will he make us necessarily damnable.”86 Luther famously suggests that, whereas in the light of nature, the prosperity of the unjust is a conundrum, because it offends against justice, in the light of grace, it is the work of “a God who crowns one ungodly man freely and apart from merits, yet damns another who may well be less, or at least no more ungodly.” How God can do something so unjust, Luther claims, only the light of glory will show.87

On closer consideration, however, faith is not as irrational a feat as Luther may seem to be suggesting here. Luther’s rejection of theodicy, and thus of epistemological control over God’s agency, coupled with the reformer’s challenge to the received metaphysics, is certainly intended to underscore the freedom of God. Only God can be said to have free choice, “for he alone can do and does … whatever he pleases in heaven and on earth.”88 But this does not mean that God actually acts blindly or purposelessly; or that what God does is beyond human knowledge; or that hidden motivation at odds with God’s revelation is what drives God’s action. While God alone is properly free, his freedom is not negative. Luther, therefore, in no way means to suggest that there is a more real or more sinister God beyond the God known from his revelation. Revelation is key here. Outside of it, to be sure, “where the bare God speaks in his majesty, there he only terrifies and kills,”89 not least through a freedom that overwhelms all human choice. But what revelation underscores is the irreducibly personal character of God’s freedom. By revealing himself, God disambiguates his freedom as his responsibility for creation and, presupposed by this, his ability to act on creation’s behalf in a way that explodes human speculation on God’s nature. The freedom of God, in actuality, is his freedom to be who he is, the Triune God, who neither acts in the sphere carved out by speculative reason nor overwhelms all human agency. Instead, God acts in the freedom of his being as Father, Son, and Spirit.

Recall that Luther’s intention is to provide assurance to a conscience that, led to consider the world, concludes that either there is no God or God is unjust.90 Hence, when Luther directs the Christian to the God as he is preached, the reformer means only that the preached God is none other than God who himself emerges from the hiddenness of his being and interprets his majesty through his revelation. With dichotomous misinterpretations of God’s being as his target, Luther can thus insist: “He who rejects the Son also loses the unrevealed God along with the revealed God. But if you cling to the revealed God with a firm faith … you will understand the hidden God. Indeed, you understand Him even now if you acknowledge the Son and His will, namely, that He wants to reveal Himself to you, that He wants to be your Lord and your Savior.”91 Christology, for Luther, has an actualist and anti-speculative thrust. In his lectures on Jonah, from the same year as De servo arbitrio, Luther emphasizes the soteriological orientation of divine hiddenness. God “is the Lord of death and life, … all things are in His hand. For He Himself is the one who kills and makes alive, makes alive and kills, leads down to hell and brings out again. From this we ought to learn that we have a God who is able to save us even in the midst of death, in the midst of sin and of hell.”92 Luther’s querying of the distinction between the two necessities has the same function. God overcomes the world, breaks in with his kingdom, introduces a new, Trinitarian economy into reality, so that the world itself and human willing within it could be remade on a different foundation, and so that, furthermore, the new creation and the new creature might come into being: “the whole world [has] not only to be thrown into strife and confusion, but actually to return to total chaos and be reduced to nothingness.”93 The upshot of these considerations is that, when Luther demands that the things above are none of our concern (quae supra nos nihil ad nos), he does not imply, like Richard of St. Victor, that ethical preparation must precede the intellectual ascent to God, let alone assert that God is ultimately beyond rational knowledge.94 What Luther affirms is that unless the things above are seen below, one misses God altogether in a quest for another god. “For thoughts of this kind, which investigate something more sublime above or outside the revelation of God, are altogether devilish… . [T]his inquisitiveness is original sin itself, by which we are impelled to strive for a way to God through natural speculation.”95

Luther’s discussion of God’s freedom, in the end, amounts to the claim that it is from within the world that God acts to reorient the direction of human willing. God, to be sure, “alone moves, actuates, and carries along by the motion of his omnipotence all things … and thus all things, even including the ungodly, cooperate with God.”96 But God acts in the freedom of his Triune being also to change the ungodly will. The will, Luther suggests, is not self-moved but has its ground in, and invariably enacts, a certain economy. Luther’s use of the pseudo-Augustinian metaphor of the will as ridden by Satan or by God is meant to emphasize this fact.97 The mythological language can easily obscure that what Luther means are the public realities that shape and orient human willing. The world in its totality does remain God’s world; yet insofar as it intersects with Satan’s kingdom whose principle is to cast doubt on divine goodness, the world is inexorably driven by self-justification, by humans acting simultaneously as creators and creatures in regard to themselves, by an iron law that by one’s own works, and those alone, can one make something of oneself.98 It is with this in mind that we must understand Luther’s wish that the term “free will” had never been invented, because a more appropriate label would be “self will”99—a will that, even as upheld by God, inescapably enacts and perpetuates only the world’s economy. Even God will be seen through this lens, unless one is fundamentally grasped by the gospel, by grace that comes as the message and reality of God’s favor and undercuts the seeming necessity and sensibleness of self-will.

When Luther denies that grace is a habit infused in the soul but is rather divine favor, he does not mean to turn grace into a fiction that lies only in the eye of the divine beholder. Rather, from a mysterious and indiscernible quality that somehow fortifies the human will before it wills, or simply enlightens reason, grace, for Luther, turns into the reality of God’s public action into which the believer is caught up. Grace is conveyed by God himself being the baptizer of sinners, by Christ offering to all his body and blood, by the word of absolution to “reckless workers.”100 In short, grace is the reality of God’s public self-giving through which the benefits of Christ’s cross and resurrection are distributed in the present. Grace is the liberating reality of divine justification that embraces the entirety of the person and thereby sets aside the seeming inevitability of the old satanic economy and its commonsensical principles. Grace calls one to believe that one may now claim the works of Christ, as if one had done them oneself, more than that, as if one were Christ oneself.101 Faith, which takes God at his word, is what constitutes human dignity for Luther. To believe is nothing other than to receive oneself from God’s justifying act. This faith is what makes one human; it restores one to Paradise and creates one anew.102 For believing God’s promise and thus being caught up in the economy of God’s grace changes everything about how one wills. It makes possible a new life of genuine other-regard and being Christ to the neighbor.

Since the will is fundamentally oriented by the economy in which one finds oneself—an economy that determines even one’s attitude to God until God openly contradicts it himself—there simply can be no free choice. Luther considers free will a fantasy precisely because “there is no middle kingdom between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan, which are mutually and perpetually in conflict with each other.”103 This conflict is to be understood not in some Manichaean, occult sense but as public; it is the Augustinian conflict between two cities. The problem of the will lies, therefore, not in the will’s weakness, and hence free choice’s inveterate pursuit of lesser realities to love. The will cannot simply be rectified by an ungraspable infusion of grace, to which one then ascribes all of one’s godly choices. The commonsensical self-will must be transformed. This happens only by repeatedly reiterating the gospel though word and sacrament, especially its personal “for you” character.

Whereas the new, cross-centered economy of divine goodness is what makes possible the will’s unanticipated orientation, the transformation itself takes place through the Holy Spirit, whom the gospel conveys outwardly and who, in turn, inwardly witnesses to the gospel’s personal character. By one’s own reason or strength, one cannot believe, Luther insists; yet “the Holy Spirit comes and gives himself to us also, wholly and completely. He teaches us to understand this deed of Christ which has been manifested to us, helps us to receive and preserve it, use it to our advantage and impart it to others, increase and extend it.”104 Luther’s stress on the Spirit’s self-donation conveys the need for the will’s recreation; the will is in no position to simply transfer its affections. In the sinful world, the gospel remains a message that defies common sense. It must be authenticated through God’s further work.

There are two corollaries of Luther’s insistence on the Spirit’s self-giving. First, faith remains a mystery that cannot be resolved. It has no resolution either through an appeal to hidden divine eternity outside of God’s work in time, nor does it have a resolution in the will’s unwillingness to pursue godly choices and to ascribe them to God. All that Luther can point the believer toward is God’s ongoing public work. God is not finished yet! This introduces the second corollary. By distinguishing between the Christ-given economy of salvation as what gives the will its fundamental orientation, and the inner witness of the Spirit, Luther avoids the introspective dimension of the Augustinian dialectic. The point of the Christian life is not inevitably to have to take the initiative in place of indiscernible grace and to ascribe one’s choices to grace. The point is rather to remain focused on the work of Christ and to be freed thereby for the economy that God’s ongoing public self-giving creates. Without it, all of our choices would continue in their futility, and the freedom of a Christian would be unthinkable.

Luther and Beyond

Luther’s theology of the will must be seen in light of medieval attempts to give conceptual resolution to the Augustinian dialectic of divine and human agencies. To give the dialectic a resolution, Luther sought to return to Augustine’s fundamental intuition that, without God’s action, human choice cannot be a reality. Luther’s emphasis on God’s Triune actuality avoids the practical or conceptual emphasis on human initiative. At the same time, by focusing on the Triune God’s self-donation and complex deployment of agency, Luther articulates a conception of the will’s freedom that points beyond its immediate theological context. First, Luther’s position emphasizes the context-structured character of human willing. What orients the will are the seemingly immovable axioms of the economy one inhabits. Second, in face of competing economies, it is not always simply a matter of persuasion. Knowledge, however true, is not self-authenticating. Both of these dimensions have important implications for how we must continue to think about human willing, especially in late modernity, with its sensitivity to social contexts, questions of power, and the enduring puzzle of evil.

Further Reading

Forde, Gerhard O. The Captivation of the Will: Luther vs. Erasmus on Freedom and Bondage. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005.Find this resource:

Jenson, Robert W. An Ontology of Freedom in the De servo arbitrio of Luther. Modern Theology 10.3 (1994): 247–252.Find this resource:

Kolb, Robert. Bound Choice, Election, and Wittenberg Theological Method: From Martin Luther to the Formula of Concord. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005.Find this resource:

McSorley, Harry. Luther: Right or Wrong? An Ecumenical-Theological Study of Luther’s Major Work, The Bondage of the Will. New York: Newman Press, 1969.Find this resource:

Rienhuber, Thomas. Kämpfender Glaube: Studien zu Luthers Bekenntnis am Ende von De servo arbitrio. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2000.Find this resource:

Saarinen, Risto. Weakness of Will in Renaissance and Reformation Thought. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Schwarzwäller, Klaus. Theologia crucis: Luthers Lehre von Prädestination nach De servo arbitrio. Munich: Kaiser, 1970.Find this resource:


(1.) The narrative arc of the Confessions (A.D. 400) is a remnant of this outlook.

(2.) Contra duas epistulas Pelagianorum (A.D. 420), III.8.24.

(3.) Augustine, Confessions, X.29.40.

(4.) Epistle 2*.8 (A.D. 428); in The Works of Saint Augustine, II/4, 236.

(5.) Augustine, as Gerald Bonner notes, “was not a theological systematizer but a rhetorician” whose work is marked by “incompatible principles without any reconciliation” (Bonner, Freedom and Necessity: St. Augustine’s Teaching on Divine Power and Human Freedom [Washington, DC, 2007], 109–110). A more sympathetic evaluation is offered by Harry McSorley. To look for a system is a rather modern preoccupation. Augustine is certainly happy with paradox. McSorley believes it belongs to Augustine’s enduring achievements to have articulated “the dialectic between grace (and predestination) and free will which he finds in Scripture” (McSorley, Luther: Right or Wrong? An Ecumenical-Theological Study of Luther’s Major Work, The Bondage of the Will [New York: Newman Press, 1969], 109).

(6.) Bernard of Clairvaux, On Loving God, II.2; in Selected Works, trans. G. R. Evans (New York: Paulist, 1987), 176.

(7.) Bernard of Clairvaux, On Grace and Free Choice, trans. D. O’Donovan (Spencer, MA: Cistercian Publications, 1977), 54 [1.2].

(8.) Ibid., 98–99 [12.41].

(9.) Anselm, On the Harmony of God’s Foreknowledge, Predestination, and Grace with Free Choice, 3.11; in Basic Writings, trans. T. Williams (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2007), 389–391.

(10.) Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermons on the Song of Songs, 82:6; Selected Works, 266.

(11.) Anselm, On Freedom of Choice, I; in Basic Writings, 147–148; and Bernard, Grace and Free Choice, 90 [10.35].

(12.) Anselm, On the Harmony, 368 [1.6].

(13.) Summa Theologica I.82.5; 82.1, 83.4; cited hereafter as ST

(14.) ST I.83.1.

(15.) ST I.82.2.

(16.) ST I.83.2; cf. “forasmuch as man is rational is it necessary that man have a free will” (ST I.81.3).

(17.) ST I.83.4.

(18.) ST I.83.4; 83.1; 83.3.

(19.) Bernard, Grace and Free Choice, 66–67 [4.11]; and Aquinas, ST I.83.2.

(20.) Bernard, Grace and Free Choice, 65–66 [4.9].

(21.) Ibid., 74 [6.18].

(22.) Anselm, On the Harmony, 369 [1.6].

(23.) Ibid., 369 [1.6].

(24.) ST I.83.1; cf. I.105.5.

(25.) Bernard, Grace and Free Choice, 105–106 [14.46–47].

(26.) Anselm, On the Harmony, 382 [3.6].

(27.) Bernard, Grace and Free Choice, 92 [11.36]; cf. 54 [1.2].

(28.) Anselm, On the Harmony, 377–378 [3.3].

(29.) Ibid., 373 [2.2]. Here Anselm follows a long line of interpreters, stretching as far back as Augustine, Boethius, and John Scotus Eriugena.

(30.) Anselm, On the Harmony, 364, 366 [1.3–4].

(31.) Ibid., 370–373 [1.7–2.2].

(32.) ST I.83.1.

(33.) Henry of Ghent, Quodlibetal Questions on Free Will, trans. R. J. Teske (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press), 31 [Quodlibet I, Q.15].

(34.) Ibid., 61 [Quodlibet IX, Q.5].

(35.) Ibid., 59–60 [Quodlibet IX, Q.5]

(36.) Ibid., 50 [Quodlibet IX, Q.5].

(37.) Marilyn McCord-Adams, “Ockham on Will, Nature, and Morality,” in The Cambridge Companion to Ockham, ed. Paul Vincent Spade (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 255–257.

(38.) Heiko A. Oberman, The Harvest of Medieval Theology: Gabriel Biel and Late Medieval Nominalism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963), esp. 128–145.

(39.) Bernard, On Loving God, 195, 196 [X.27–28].

(40.) Richard of St. Victor, The Twelve Patriarchs, LXXI; in Richard of St. Victor, trans. G. A. Zinn (New York: Paulist, 1979), 129.

(41.) Meister Eckhart, On Detachment; in Meister Eckhart, trans. E. Colledge and B. McGinn (New York: Paulist, 1981), 287–288.

(42.) LW 33:294; WA 18:721.

(43.) LW 33:68–69; WA 18:637.

(44.) Defense and Explanation of All the Articles (1521), LW 32:93; WA 7:446.

(45.) LW 32:94; WA 7:450.

(46.) “Heidelberg Disputation,” LW 31:48–49; WA 1:359 [Thesis 13].

(47.) LW 31:49; WA 1:360 [Theses 14 and 15].

(48.) LW 33:107; WA 18:664.

(49.) LW 33:134; WA 18:681; and Lectures on Galatians (1535), LW 26:296; WA 40/I:459–460.

(50.) LW 33:105, 114; WA 18:663, 669.

(51.) LW 33:108; WA 18:665.

(52.) Erasmus, De Libero Arbitrio; in Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation, eds. E. G. Rupp and P. S. Watson (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1959), 47; and LW 33:102–103; WA 18:661.

(53.) Erasmus, De Libero Arbitrio, 89–90.

(54.) Ibid., 79. For Luther’s critique of the lack of clarity in Erasmus’s position, see LW 33:107–108; WA 18:664.

(55.) Lombard, The Sentences, Book II.4(2) and 6; trans. Giulio Silano (Toronto: PIMS, 2008), 118–119.

(56.) LW 31:48; WA 1:359.

(57.) LW 33:110; WA 18:665. Or, as Luther puts it in Assertio omnium articulorum (1520), it is a “figmentum in rebus seu titulus sine re” (WA 7:146).

(58.) Augustine juxtaposes perfection as God’s gift with the counterfactual perfection through the “free, or rather enslaved, choice of one’s own will [libero, vel potius servo propriae voluntatis arbitrio]” (Contra Julianum [A.D. 420], II.8.23; in PL 44:689). For Luther’s appeals to the passage, see LW 32:92; WA 7:447; and LW 33:108; WA 18:665.

(59.) LW 33:109; WA 18:665. Or “the power of free choice is nothing [vis liberi arbitrii nihil est]” (LW 33:68; WA 18:636).

(60.) LW 32:93; WA 7:446.

(61.) LW 33:67; WA 18:636.

(62.) LW 31:51; WA 1:361 [Thesis 17].

(63.) LW 33:293; WA 18:786.

(64.) Robert Kolb, Bound Choice, Election, and Wittenberg Theological Method: From Martin Luther to the Formula of Concord (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), esp. chapter I. An argument for interpreting De servo arbitrio in close connection with later elaborations and clarifications can also be found in Thomas Rienhuber, Kämpfender Glaube: Studien zu Luthers Bekenntnis am Ende von De servo arbitrio (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2000).

(65.) Erich Przywara, Analogia Entis, trans. J. R. Betz and D. B. Hart (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), e.g., 164–166, 476.

(66.) McSorley, Luther: Right or Wrong?

(67.) Otto Hermann Pesch, Hinführung zu Luther (Mainz, Germany: Matthias-Grünewald, 2004; new ed. forthcoming in 2016), chapter 10.

(68.) Klaus Schwarzwäller, Theologia crucis: Luthers Lehre von Prädestination nach De servo arbitrio (Munich: Kaiser, 1970).

(69.) Eeva Martikainen, “Der Begriff ‘Gott’ in De servo arbitrio,” Kari Kopperi, ed., Widerspruch: Luthers Auseinandersetzung mit Erasmus von Rotterdam (Helsinki: Luther-Agricola Gesellschaft, 1997), 26–44.

(70.) Hans-Martin Barth, The Theology of Martin Luther: A Critical Assessment, trans. Linda M. Maloney (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013), 199–220.

(71.) Robert W. Jenson, An Ontology of Freedom in the De servo arbitrio of Luther. Modern Theology 10.3 (1994): 247–252.

(72.) Gerhard O. Forde, The Captivation of the Will: Luther vs. Erasmus on Freedom and Bondage (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005).

(73.) Eberhard Jüngel, “The Revelation of the Hiddenness of God,” in Theological Essays II, ed. John Webster (Edinburgh: T&T Clark), 120–144.

(74.) Marius Timmann Mjaaland, The Hidden God: Luther, Philosophy, and Political Theology (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016).

(75.) Paul R. Hinlicky, Paths Not Taken: Fates of Theology From Luther to Leibnitz (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009).

(76.) “Free will then is a peculiar (yet inevitable) illusion about the self and its powers absent news of the coming God, an almost necessary evasion of the precarious reality of the embodied self with is moral burden of the irrevocable past.” in Paul R. Hinlicky, Luther and the Beloved Community: A Path for Christian Theology after Christendom (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), 148.

(77.) LW 33:176; WA 18:709.

(78.) LW 33:38; WA 18:615.

(79.) LW 33:293; WA 18:786

(80.) LW 33:189; WA 18:718.

(81.) This entire paragraph draws on LW 33:37–42; WA 18:615–619. Anselm, On the Harmony, 373 [2.3].

(82.) LW 33:39; WA 18:616. On the contested status of the paragraph from which this statement comes, see Kolb, Bound Choice, 27.

(83.) LW 33:243; WA 18:754.

(84.) LW 33:176, 177; WA 18:709, 710.

(85.) LW 33:140; WA 18:685.

(86.) LW 33:62; WA 18:633.

(87.) LW 33:292; WA 18:785.

(88.) LW 33:68; WA 18:636.

(89.) “First Disputation against the Antinomians” (1537); in Solus Decalogus Est Aeternus: Martin Luther’s Complete Antinomian Theses and Disputations, trans. H. Sonntag (Minneapolis: Lutheran Press, 2008), 91; and WA 39/I:391. Cf. Second Disputation (1538); in Solus Decalogus, 225; WA 39/I:484.

(90.) LW 33:291; WA 18:784.

(91.) LW 5:46; WA 43:460. Similarly, “what you hear from [Christ], you hear from the eternal and invisible Father. Nor is there any other God or any other will of God to be sought aside from this Christ. Consequently those who indulge in their own ideas and speculate about God and His will aside from Christ lose God altogether” (Psalm 2 [1532], LW 12:51; WA 40/II:256). Reinhuber comments: “Luther takes his point of departure from the realization that the omnipotent God works life and death and all in all. He directs this knowledge, first of all, to God’s work of salvation, to his predestination. If God works all, then he works also in the person who at this very moment believes, does not believe, or disregards faith in God. Along with the Bible, Luther speaks of the redeemed and the lost, of rejection and damnation, but does not—like Calvin—speak of a pre-temporal, eternal, supralapsarian decree” (Reinhuber, Kämpfender Glaube, 210–211).

(92.) Lectures on Jonah (1525); LW 19:15; WA 13:248.

(93.) LW 33:50; WA 18:625

(94.) LW 33:139; WA 18:685.

(95.) LW 5:44; WA 43:459. Luther sees the serpent of Genesis 3 as a false preacher of a god, seemingly more real, beyond God.

(96.) LW 33:242; WA 18:754.

(97.) LW 33:66; WA 18:635.

(98.) LW 26:259, 262; WA 40/I:407, 410.

(99.) LW 32:94; WA 7:450.

(100.) This is what Luther accuses Erasmus of turning people into; LW 33:34–35; WA 18:613. On God’s role in baptism specifically, see The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520), LW 36:62–63; WA 6:53–531.

(101.) “A Brief Instruction on What to Look for and Expect in the Gospels” (1521), LW 35:119; WA 10/I:1:11.

(102.) Disputation Concerning Man (1536); LW 34:139; WA 39/I:176 [Thesis 32]; and The Freedom of a Christian (1520), LW 31:360; WA 7:31.

(103.) LW 33:227; WA 18:743.

(104.) Small Catechism (1529), Part II: The Creed; BC 355; and Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper (1528); LW 37:366; WA 26:506.