Martin Luther, Freedom of Conscience, and The Bondage of the Will

Martin Luther’s The Bondage of the Will was considered even by Luther himself to be one of his greatest works of theology, as it established the biblical and logical basis for his most treasured doctrine—justification by faith alone, and, contributing to its continued popularity, it does so with all of Luther’s characteristic, and entertaining, thunder and spleen. As to its conclusions, they remain influential among Protestants, who still hold the monergistic doctrine of justification to be absolutely central, and most of whom still share Luther’s unlimited vision of God’s sovereignty, if not his completely pessimistic assessment of human will. Luther’s conclusions, however, have not been nearly as influential or evergreen as his polemical methods, his hermeneutical strategies, and his individualistic emphases on “freedom of the conscience,” “personal salvation,” and Sola Scriptura, which have become such commonplaces within the Protestant church that most evangelicals would not even know to credit Luther as their headspring.

In this essay, I hope to show that Luther, however salutary his aims, went to unnecessary extremes against the doctrine of free will in The Bondage of the Will, and that both his methods and his premises contain significant vectors of potential error that, in their kinetic manifestations, continue to afflict the Protestant church today. Luther’s greatest error was not in submitting to the corruptions of his times, but rather that, in being so zealous to correct his wayward contemporaries, he unintentionally fathered different, but just as unbiblical, doctrinal over-reaches. In Luther’s attack on human will, tradition, and authority, he laid the groundwork for an almost inevitable personalization of Christianity, unmoored from the universal church—her doctrines and her history, that has become unjustifiably self-reliant in a now almost arbitrary interpretation of the Scriptures.

On the other hand, Christians—even Roman Catholic Christians—must be thankful for The Bondage of the Will and all that Luther attempted and accomplished in it. We must express gratitude for Martin Luther’s monumental, often solitary and self-sacrificing, efforts for the sake of the church and its people. But this sympathetic attitude does not require an uncritical acceptance of Luther’s overcorrections. It was necessary that Luther turn the wheel of the Roman Catholic Church quite violently away from the manifest hazards on the one side of the truth, but in our day, it behooves us to recognize that we may have ended up in the ditch on the other side.

In short, Luther’s work on earth is finished, but ours is not. Luther’s corrections were necessary in his day, and other corrections are necessary in ours. So it is in the reforming, Bible-centered, and Christ-submitted spirit of Luther that I will here attempt to re-evaluate Luther’s views and emphases in the light of their original exigencies and their current effects.

Historical Background

The doctrines of free will and congruent (or congruous) merit were the theological foundations for the medieval Church’s corporate doctrine of salvation and the system of works that accompanied it (e.g., confession, penance, indulgences, relics, adoration of the saints and Mary, purgatory, etc.). If, as the medieval Church taught, God grants favor only to those who have approached near to Him through the application of will, then a will to do good lies at the heart of salvation. Salvation for the medieval Catholic therefore involved at least the cooperation of the human and divine wills. This view is not that different from what contemporary Catholics still believe, as ably summarized by Thomas Flint:

According to the Catholic view, we humans retain after the Fall our ability to perform some good actions without any special divine assistance. But our true happiness is something we cannot attain solely through the use of our own natural powers: the end that we seek—the eternal life of the beatific vision—is not a natural end and cannot be achieved by natural means. The supernatural assistance that each of us requires to attain eternal life is known generically as grace, while the particular type of grace we need to perform those salutary acts that God has ordained will allow us to merit eternal life is known as actual grace.1

Medieval Church authorities built their corporate doctrine of the church upon this personal doctrine of synergy: the Church (a macrocosm of the individual in Platonic fashion, by way of Augustine’s City of God) also cooperated with God in the work of salvation. If individual human effort were necessary to gain God’s favor, then the more collective “works” of human tradition and authority were also necessary, though not sufficient, to communicate “collective” human salvation.

So, prior to the Reformation, the Roman Catholic church accumulated a nearly exclusive monopoly on the commonly accepted means by which one might either meritoriously gain God’s favor and grace or receive the merits of the saints at the Church’s exclusive disposal. Thus was born the dictum extra Ecclesiam nulla salus—“outside the Church, there is no salvation.”

Medieval church authorities attempted to distance their synergistic view of meritorious work from the Pelagian doctrine whereby the human will (unaided by God’s grace or Spirit) could attain salvation, but their attempts made only a theoretical difference. In practice, many—if not most—common medieval Christians trusted in meritorious works and their relationship to the Church far more than they trusted directly in God’s grace and mercy. In fact, for most, God’s grace and mercy were communicated nearly exclusively through the Church. The idea of a personal, direct communion with God (“Jesus Christ as your personal Savior”) would not have occurred to most medieval Christians, as this was not at all an emphasis of the medieval Church or culture:

People in medieval Europe were less concerned about their individuality, which took a back seat to the greater concern for the church, the crown, and the tribe. A man’s identity was indistinguishable from his collective persona. Thus, a man would be known by his familial line, his religious affiliation, or his allegiance to a king. Medieval social values demanded total conformity in deeds and words and even in secret thoughts to the collective will as expressed by the state and official church. This submersion of the individual into the collective was reflected amply in art, literature, and in the general attitude toward life.2

In Luther’s day, individual fear of perdition and collective hope of divine favor (again, communicated exclusively through the Church) coalesced to buttress a brisk ecclesiastical business of corrupt and abusive simonizing. Church indulgences and authority in the church were most literally being sold. What had begun in order to safeguard and codify the synergistic way to salvation looked now like it blocked the way of salvation altogether to any who had neither the money nor position to broker the Church’s favor.

Luther saw these abuses firsthand, and suffered under them personally for decades. He found relief only when he altogether threw off human merit (and the then-corrupt authority of human tradition) and entrusted his salvation to God’s grace alone directly communicated from God to the person who exercised faith. Before then, he was not able to trust that he had done enough to “merit” God’s favor. He recounts the moment, while he meditated on Romans 1:17, that the revelation occurred:

Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that “the just shall live by his faith.” Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before the “justice of God” had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven. . . .

If you have a true faith that Christ is your Savior, then at once you have a gracious God, for faith leads you in and opens up God’s heart and will, that you should see pure grace and overflowing love.3

Notice the reversal here. “If you have a true faith that Christ is your Savior . . . ” In this moment of realization, Luther’s doctrine moved from a personal damnation mitigated by a corporate hope to a personal hope in escaping a universal damnation through direct affiliation with Jesus—from “no salvation without the church” to “all salvation within the individual heart.” The consequences of this revolutionary shift in the doctrine of salvation continues to have a massive impact today, in both secular and sacred arenas.4

In summary, according to medieval Roman Catholicism, reason and a will to do good could bring a person all the way up to God, so that God would respond to this congruent merit with grace and salvation through the Church. Corresponding to reason and a will to do good in the individual, the Church corporately exercised all the best of human tradition (collective reason) and human authority (collective will) in order to accomplish collective works of salvation on earth, cooperative with the Divine will.

Though the Catholic’s personal doctrine and its corporate corollary might seem harmless enough on the surface, Luther saw them both as pernicious lies in stark contradiction to God and the Gospel, and very much of his conviction on this stemmed from his own personal conversion experience—the massive personal relief he had felt upon jettisoning his own need to satisfy God’s wrath through the meritorious works sanctioned by the Church.5

Luther detected the doctrine of human free will at the base of the Church’s ineffectual and corrupted doctrines of personal and corporate salvation, and he believed that if he could destroy this one false doctrine of “free-will,” the corruptions of the Roman Catholic system would be decisively undermined with one stroke.

Erasmus’s Diatribe and Luther’s The Bondage of the Will

In this historical context, as Luther’s doctrine of totally unmerited salvation had begun to come up against some of the cardinal doctrines of the Church, Pope Clement VII and Thomas More urged Desiderius Erasmus, the pre-eminent Christian Humanist and scholar, to defend the Church against Luther’s attacks.

Erasmus chose the doctrine of human free will as his preferred arena of debate, and he wrote De libero arbitrio diatribe sive collatio (“Of Free Will: Discourses and Comparisons,” hereafter, the Diatribe) as a measured “refutation” (discussion, really) of Luther’s personal doctrine of unmerited (even unmeritable) salvation.

Luther responded to Erasmus’s cool-headed Diatribe with the spirited De Servo Arbitrio (“Of Unfree Will,” hereafter, Bondage of the Will), and in it, Luther thanked Erasmus for singling out “the essential issue” in the debate between Luther and the Church:

You alone, in contrast with all others, have not wearied me with those extraneous issues about the Papacy, purgatory, indulgences and such like—trifles, rather than issues—in respect of which almost all to date have sought my blood (though without success); you, and you alone, have seen the hinge on which all turns, and aimed for the vital spot.6

Luther—and Erasmus as well, apparently—recognized that all the superficial doctrines of the Church to which Luther objected, and even the Church’s central reliance on human philosophy and tradition, all rested on this one doctrine: human free will. So Erasmus, rather too cool for Luther’s taste, attempted to prop up free will in his Diatribe, agreeing at the outset to use only the “canonical Scriptures, since Luther submits to the authority of no extra-canonical writer,”7 and Luther, rather too heatedly for my taste, fought back with a deluge of Scripture and what he called “resistless,” “irrefutable” logic.8

Throughout Bondage of the Will, Luther argues like someone with absolutely nothing to lose. His excommunication9 freed him from any real need (or desire) for restraint, and his characteristically unbridled force of attack and loose liveliness of expression are on full display here.

Erasmus, on the other hand, had the Luther-sympathizing Humanists tying one hand behind his back and the Luther-excommunicating Papists tying the other hand. Either of these parties could have damaged Erasmus’s reputation or his occupational situation almost irreparably,  and, additionally, Erasmus had very little to gain personally should he actually succeed in his contest with Luther. He didn’t want or need to argue with Luther, so his main goal in the coerced engagement was the unenviable task of averting a schism in the Church. Understandably, given these constraining circumstances and his already mild temperament, Erasmus’s argumentation throughout the Diatribe is delicate, provisional, hedged, measured, careful, and unassertive. In other words, this was not a fair fight.

Luther must have realized this. He repeatedly (almost repetitively) calls the Diatribe or its author “sleepy” or “sleepy-headed” throughout the course of his book, among other more colorful epithets.10 He regularly (often rightly) criticizes the Diatribe for self-contradiction (which was likely the unavoidable effect of Erasmus’s desire to please two opposing sides to avoid a breach), and Luther often implies that Erasmus must either be a mere baby Christian, completely without real faith, or an outright blasphemer. Luther’s tone throughout is dismissive, insulting, and self-congratulatory.

And this too was not without some justification, since Luther handily won the day in this particular debate, to which Erasmus barely showed up. Reading The Bondage of the Will is the disquisitional equivalent of seeing an underweight boxer with both hands tied behind his back being pummeled purple by a flailing, angry gorilla who gets so bored of his unresisting human punching bag that he begins carting other objects into the ring to absorb his reserve fury.11 With that in mind, I won’t be bringing Erasmus or his argument much into the re-evaluation of Luther’s doctrine of the will and God’s Providence, though in passing, my sympathies are with him, useless as they may be to him now.

Luther’s “Most Severe” Doctrine of the Will

Erasmus’s “definition” of free will is so feckless and variously qualified that Luther has little difficulty exploiting its vagaries to his advantage. Erasmus makes one qualification in particular that Luther seizes on repeatedly, and it completely disintegrates Erasmus’s argument, namely, that man cannot will any good without the cooperative assistance of Divine power. Luther argues that if man cannot will to do good without God’s grace, then the human will cannot be said to be responsible for good in any sense:

You said that ‘free-will’ is a power of the human will by which a man can apply himself to good; but here you say, and approve of its being said, that man without grace cannot will good. The definition affirms what the statement parallel to it denies!12

Not content to merely contradict Erasmus’s view that humans are able to apply their wills toward good, however, Luther follows through additionally to reject that humans can even will evil! In fact, Luther barely allows the human will any substantial agency. Consider this representative passage:

So man’s will is like a beast standing between two riders. If God rides, it wills and goes where God wills . . . If Satan rides, it wills and goes where Satan wills. Nor may it choose to which rider it will run, or which it will seek; but the riders themselves fight to decide who shall have and hold it.13

Why even speak of a human will at all if this is the case? What exactly can the human actually will in Luther’s view? If this so-called will chooses nothing but what has already been chosen for it, and without any real choice, how can there be any real will? The “will” here might give a basic assent to being governed, but it wouldn’t make a bit of difference if it didn’t. If the will is in such bondage, “free-will” is of course, as Erasmus calls it, “an empty term,”14 but in all truthfulness even “will” becomes a similarly empty term in Luther’s view.

Luther does almost nothing to argue against the implications of this. In one of the more flabbergasting passages in his book, Luther actually argues that, due to the necessity of human actions predicated by God’s omnipotent foreknowledge, no human merit exists of any kind—good or bad. In other words, God saves those who don’t deserve salvation, and He also damns those who don’t deserve damnation:

But if a God who crowns the undeserving pleases you, you ought not to be displeased when He damns the undeserving! If He is just in the one case, He cannot but be just in the other . . . it is at present incomprehensible how it is just for Him to damn the undeserving; yet faith will continue to believe that it is so, till the Son of Man shall be revealed.15

In Luther’s zeal to annihilate all grounds for human merit in salvation, he has also destroyed all just grounds for human damnation, and even annihilated the very idea of human accountability altogether.16

Luther doesn’t even seem to realize how much of the Scriptures and the logic of redemptive history he’s denying here. If Luther’s view is correct, then why would Jesus, the very Son of God, need to die to satisfy God’s justice? If God saves and damns willy-nilly, without any reference to deserving, what kind of sense does the Cross (or any Divine provision for salvation) make?

This is not my own human sense of justice attempting to put God in the docks. No, the conception of God’s justice I’m employing here comes directly from God and His Word, and just as we may not bend God’s justice to suit our sin, we certainly are not allowed to deny it to suit our logic. As God says plainly: “He who justifies the guilty and he who condemns the blameless, both of them alike are an abomination to the Lord” (Prov. 17:15). What a doctrine that makes God abominable to Himself in election!

No. Luther’s exegesis, logic, or both simply must be wrong on this point. God does not damn the undeserving. Nor does he save the undeserving. We are saved in Christ, and no person has ever been more deserving than He of a “not-guilty” verdict. Or we are damned for our sin, because we ourselves willed to sin and are therefore guilty before God’s Law. If Luther had merely stuck to the Scriptures, he would have done better in this.

Luther’s Double Standard

But Luther does not stick to the Scriptures for the most crucial points of his argument. For example, he makes a number of puzzling and seemingly self-contradictory statements about the human will and voluntary willingness, purportedly to honor the plain words of the Scripture, even though the will and willingness can claim no necessary place in his system. And, in preference to his logic over the plain words of Scripture, he always undercuts these statements as seeming truths rather than plain ones. For example:

The will, whether it be God’s or man’s, does what it does, good or bad, under no compulsion, but just as it wants or pleases, as if totally free.17

“As if,” he says, introducing a figure. All throughout his thorough thrashing of Erasmus, he criticizes the Diatribe for resorting to “figures” when the plain text of the Scriptures should be heard without self-serving caveats.18

Yet, when it comes to the Bible’s rather straightforward descriptions of human agency and accountability (many of which citations are humbly submitted by Erasmus), Luther replies with a figure: “It is as if we have agency, but we know we really don’t.”19 To which Erasmus could reply, “It is as if God foreknows omnipotently, but we know He really doesn’t.” This “wretched refuge of ‘figures’”20 is equivalent in both writers, and equivalently eisegetical.

Luther’s double standard in this crops up throughout Bondage of the Will. It is very apparent, for example, in Luther’s one-sided description of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. Luther has no qualms about saying that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart—that God Himself is the active agent of Pharaoh’s heart-hardening—because that is the “plain and well-known” meaning of “harden” in Exodus 9:12.21 He refuses to see Erasmus’s figure here, and rightly so:

We continue to insist that there can be no figure here; the Word of God must be taken in its plain meaning, as the words stand.22

But what of the plain and figureless words in Exodus 8:15 or 8:32, which say rather straightforwardly, “Pharaoh hardened his heart.” What can Luther do, but insert figures here beyond the Scripture and say, “It is as if Pharaoh hardened his heart. We know God is actually the only active agent of the hardening.” That’s not any more acceptable for Luther than Erasmus.

This is not the only place where Luther goes beyond Scripture with a “figure” to protect his point. His distinction between the “God preached” and the “God hidden,” as if God’s revealed character and hidden character are somehow in opposition, is also deeply flawed:

God preached works to the end that sin and death may be taken away, and we may be saved. . . . But God hidden in majesty neither deplores not takes away death, but works life, and death, and all in all; . . . Thus, He does not will the death of a sinner—that is, in His Word; but He wills it by His inscrutable will. . . . So it is right to say: ‘If God does not desire our death, it must be laid to the charge of our own will if we perish’; this, I repeat, is right if you spoke of God preached.23

In this Erasmus does not go beyond the Word preached, but Luther most certainly does! Luther basically argues that the plain sense of the Bible seems to say we are accountable because it seems that God does not desire the death of a sinner, but Luther, since he apparently knows the hidden and inscrutable will of God (!), can tell us what is really going on behind and beyond the Word preached. This is nothing more than a double standard, and an egregious one at that.

Even though Luther criticizes Erasmus for bringing in human authorities, bowing to “Mistress Reason,” or resorting to “figures,” Luther himself does the same when it strengthens or protects his argument. He goes beyond Scripture to make logical inferences not propounded in any canonical text, he resorts to figures to explain away plain Scriptural language, and he seems to do this on no authority but his own, in open contradiction to the exegetical tradition.

The Bible clearly teaches man’s accountability (as Erasmus defends). The Bible clearly teaches God’s sovereignty (as Luther defends). We should respect the plain words of Scripture on both of these matters (even if they seem contradictory), and we should learn “not to exceed what is written” (1 Cor. 4:6). Luther could not abide this in this case, however, for it would have left too much room for the pernicious doctrine of free will upon which the Roman Catholics had based their corrupting mediations between God and men.

So, instead, the same Luther who regularly (and not charitably, I would add) criticizes Erasmus for trying to force the Bible to succumb to man’s reason,24 nonetheless rejects, on the basis of analytic reason alone, that man’s freedom and God’s sovereignty could co-exist:

It would certainly be a hard question, I allow—indeed, an insoluble one—if you sought to establish both the foreknowledge of God and the freedom of man together; for what is harder, yes, more impossible, than maintaining that contraries and contradictories do not clash?25

Yet, if such an apparent clash is actually what the plain words of the Bible indicate, who are we to deny it? Should we not believe it? Or are we to agree with the Scriptures only as far as we can resolve its teachings within our limited capacity to understand? Let Luther speak to Luther on this, and physician, heal thyself:

Everywhere we should stick to just the simple, natural meaning of the words, as yielded by the rules of grammar and the habits of speech that God has created among men; for if anyone may devise ‘implications’ and ‘figures’ in Scripture at his own pleasure, what will all Scripture be but a reed shaken with the wind, and a sort of chameleon?26

Luther’s Accidental Individualism

This points to Luther’s most significant and long-lasting vector of potential error. His self-admittedly extreme view of predestination (with all of its nearly blasphemous implications) can be cast aside (and has been mostly) by the inheritors of Luther’s legacy who charitably view his over-statements as the agitations of a well-meaning exegete in a time of great crisis.

No, the most far-reaching damage done by The Bondage of the Will has little to do with the conclusions Luther reached, and almost everything to do with how he reached them. The individualism that Luther adopted perhaps accidentally became and still is a foundational tenet for the modern West, and it has had some good but at this point mostly disastrous results.

Notice that Luther’s doctrine of the Scripture (as interpreted by any individual) was set absolutely against any weight of human tradition:

The prince of this world does not permit the laws of the Pope and his pontiffs to be kept in liberty; his intention is to entangle and bind consciences. This the true God cannot bear. So the Word of God and the traditions of men fight each other in implacable opposition.27

Or consider another, more explicitly individualist passage:

Through the enlightening of the Holy Ghost, the special gift of God, one enjoys complete certainty in judging of and deciding between the doctrines and opinions of all men as they affect oneself and one’s own personal salvation.28

That Luther regularly conflates the actual Word of God and his own interpretation of it  (as if he is not merely a single contributor to the expansive human exegetical tradition) is apparent throughout his book, as evidenced by this typically self-congratulatory aside:

Now let us consider the later part [of the Diatribe], where it attempts to refute my arguments . . . Here you shall see what the smoke of man can do against the thunder and lightning of God! 29

What becomes clear from this is that Luther’s personal doctrine of salvation and his emphasis on individual freedom of conscience all rest on his personalized doctrine of Scripture. Because he believed Scripture to be plain and self-interpreting, something even schoolboys could easily understand, he saw no need for “priestcraft,” the traditions of men, and like obfuscations.

In his view, the only authority the Church can rightfully claim comes from the Word of God, so one could logically dispense with the Church’s authority per se, since its commands are either redundant to the plain commands of Scripture or unlawfully beyond them. Where the Church’s authority is unlawful (i.e., extra-biblical in its pre- or proscriptions), the individual conscience is not bound. Therefore, the average individual armed with the plain Word of God has as much authority and truth as the whole Church in all its history. Prone to hyperbole, Luther said as much, and regularly.

At first, this individualism does not seem all that dangerous (it seems even appealing), almost as harmless seeming as a Gospel where God does most of the work and man just cooperates a little bit. But you can see where this religious individualism, now almost fully grown, has gotten us: fragmentary micro-denominationalism, universally arbitrary eisegesis, the disappearance of discourse, and abstracted, useless, personalized religion. There are nearly as many views on Scripture as there are people enjoying “complete certainty” in their judgments. In place of one vast monolith of fallible, but in its best state self-correcting, human tradition, we have an exploded broadcast of ignorant, unintegrated, individual consciences, all of whose possessors believe their opinion is just as valid as anyone else’s.

It is simply not enough to have Scripture in front of you, however plain, for the Holy Spirit does not work immediately (in either sense). Trained exegetes working together in the church with faithful laymen are indispensable to the proper Spirit-empowered interpretation of the Scriptures. In every text that Luther pointed to in Bondage of the Will to prove that the Scriptures were in fact plain and perspicuous (and not ever “obscure” or “ambiguous” contra Erasmus), some common features seem to have escaped his notice: that God expected the sacred texts would sometimes be misunderstood, that He wanted them to be accurately interpreted, and that He called and qualified people in the covenant community to do just that—together.30

Did Luther forget that he himself was well-trained in the original languages, well-versed in Patristics and the Greek and Latin Classics, a teacher of logic and a literate preacher of the Bible, and yet even he wrestled painstakingly to understand the Scriptures? Furthermore, he also made errors—some fairly large ones, so whatever “complete certainty” he enjoyed was in fact illusory. He also disagreed with people (e.g., the other Magisterial Reformers) who were as well-trained, as sincere, and as committed to his own cause, as he was. Ironically, the very New Testament Greek text with which Luther bludgeoned Erasmus’s “sleepy-headed blasphemies” was itself the decades-long editorial labor of none other than Erasmus!

The unpleasant truth, as Moisés Silva points out, is “that a sincere and intelligent commitment to the classical doctrine of biblical inerrancy in no way guarantees that an individual will adopt expected interpretations.”31 In fact, agreement on every foundational principle of exegesis will not end up producing unanimity of interpretation. In practice, exegetical solidarity is much better preserved by a humble commitment to historical and communal Christianity than by various, individual appeals to God’s naked Word, no matter how seemingly plain.

At the same time, we can cautiously permit that falling back on a primarily personal doctrine of Scripture may become temporarily necessary depending on the crisis (e.g., Luther or Athanasius), but it is generally insufficient for the life of the church, and therefore, all the personalized doctrines of salvation and conscience built on it are also similarly insufficient. And they are not merely insufficient, if no crisis of authority necessitates them. When we emphasize the individual doctrines of Scripture, conscience, and salvation to the exclusion of their corporate counterparts, we run the risk of rending the very living fabric of the universal church.

The prophet Elijah once said “I alone am left” when confronted with the corporate corruption of the people of God—“Elijah Contra Mundum.” But, as a gentle exhortation and encouragement, God first reminded Elijah of His own faithful character, and then told him of 7,000 faithful Israelites who had not “bowed to Baal” (1 Kings 19:9f). There will always be a faithful community of God, and it is to that community that we must contribute and in that community that we must humbly live. As Solomon said, wiser than all, “He who separates himself seeks his own desire; he quarrels against all sound wisdom” (Prov. 18:1).

Consider how the personalized doctrines of salvation and Scripture have been abused in the Reformed church. In more cases than is at all seemly, Sola Scriptura and freedom of conscience have become little more than pious-sounding covers used by conscience-seared practical atheist “pastors” who fear men more than God and transform Luther’s bold Athanasian individualism into a cowardly mechanism of exploitation whereby they avoid all human accountability while they abuse God’s sheep.

These robber shepherds think themselves holier than the Papists because they would never presume to take unto themselves the fallible and limited authority of men to command obedience, but instead, by the infallible authority of God’s Word (which they alone have “rightly divided”), they presume to bind consciences for their own advantage. This corruption is worse than the first. This misuse of Reformed doctrine is as onerous as medieval Catholicism and, in my opinion, even uglier.

Conclusion

The heart of Bondage of the Will—the devastating critique of the idea that humans can merit salvation by their own works—continues to be a cornerstone of the Reformed faith, and it has brought the same relief and confidence to millions that it originally brought to Luther himself. Additionally, God’s correction of the Roman Catholic Church, largely attributable to Luther’s self-sacrificial work, continues apace. For instance, the contemporary Catholic interpretation of extra Ecclesiam nulla salus now runs like this: “all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body,”32 which would hardly make even the most ardent Protestant grouse all that much. We can also appreciate the wisdom of Luther’s insight, and the courage and commitment of his convictions. How strange that the freedom of the individual conscience should be the platform Luther used to overthrow the freedom of the will. But this is how it had to be.

Luther’s emphasis on the rights and freedoms of individuals in the face of tyrants in Church and State has also had far-reaching impact for good, in spite of its inordinate over-emphasis in Western society. It is this imbalance that we must address practically today. Luther might have seen the seeds of the trouble in the contentious Christian sects that had already begun to proliferate in his day, but he could not have known the full price the Protestant church would eventually pay for his necessary emphasis on the individual. We, however, know it all too well. We have no excuse.

As has been noted many times before by others, Luther was not a charitable man. This is understandable—he was despised, rejected, and excommunicated by the very Church he had served with all his strength, and he was set aside even in the Reformation he had started. But we don’t have a similar defense for our lack of peaceableness. It’s not the whole world against us anymore, unless we refuse to be at peace with our brothers and sisters. We need to learn from the destructive upshot of Luther’s individualism as much as we have learned from his championing of the Bible and sound doctrines, or his laudably myopic commitment to the glory of God. In Luther’s honor, a revitalized commitment to charitable corporate discourse, communal and collective identity in Christ, mutual submission, and charity in all things, could go a long way to heal the unnecessary divisions that have resulted from his necessary work.

********************

This is a seminary paper I wrote for History of Philosophy and Christian Thought (taught by the inimitable Dr. Bill Davis at RTS Atlanta). I decided to publish it here in honor of Reformation 500. Semper Reformanda!

  1.  Thomas P. Flint “Two Accounts of Providence,” in Divine and Human Action: Essays in the Metaphysics of Theism, Thomas V. Morris, ed. (Ithica and London: Cornell University Press, 1988), 160. Compare this to Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiæ, I–II.5.5., “Whether Man Can Attain Happiness by His Natural Powers?”
  2.  Dipak K. Gupta, Path to Collective Madness: A Study in Social Order and Political Pathology (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2001), 24.
  3.  Quoted in Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (New York: Meridian, 1995; orig. pub. 1955), 49–50.
  4.  As for its secular impact, in an important sense, this was the birth of individual rights in Western consciousness.
  5.  This is made clear in Luther’s admission near the conclusion of Bondage of the Will: “I frankly confess that, for myself, even if it could be, I should not want ‘free-will’ to be given me, nor anything to be left in my own hands to enable me to endeavor after salvation . . . because, even were there no dangers, adversaries or devils, I should still be forced to labour with no guarantee of success, and to beat my fists at the air.” Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will, J. I. Packer and O. R. Johnston, trans. (Grand Rapids: Fleming H. Revell, 2005; orig. pub. 1957), 313.
  6.  Luther, Bondage of the Will, 319.
  7.  Luther, Bondage of the Will, 109.
  8.  Luther, Bondage of the Will, 80, 216, 218.
  9.  Which occurred in 1521, four years prior to the publication of Bondage of the Will.
  10.  Luther, Bondage of the Will, 145, 146, 149, 160, 166, 222, 246, 294.
  11.  Which likely explains why Bondage of the Will remains popular among Reformed theologians, since most people enjoy few things more than a risk-free and uncontested thrashing of their opponents. See also Greg Bahnsen v. Gordon Stein.
  12.  Luther, Bondage of the Will, 145.
  13.  Luther, Bondage of the Will, 104. Luther makes this same point elsewhere (e.g., “neither are open, ” 158; “the will cannot turn itself in either direction,” 184).
  14.  Luther, Bondage of the Will, 145.
  15.  Luther, Bondage of the Will, 234–235.
  16.  That this is in fact Luther’s motivation is made clear by this introductory remark: “Suppose we imagine that God ought to be a God who regards merit in those that are to be damned. Must we not equally maintain and allow that He should also regard merit in those that are to be saved?” (p. 233). And there’s the rub for Luther.
  17.  Luther, Bondage of the Will, 81.
  18.  Heading V.ii (p. 191) says quite explicitly, “That figures of speech may not be postulated in Scripture without adequate reason.”
  19.  For instance, concerning God’s words of promise and commendation, Luther says: “It is just as if you were to comfort someone by intimating to him that his works certainly please God” (p. 183; emphasis mine). Luther goes on from here to say that God threatens and promises to no substantial effect, since “nothing is achieved by such words, and the will cannot turn itself in either direction” (p. 184). Why does God give threats and promises then? Luther, no stranger to investigating God’s “inscrutable will” where it might suit him (e.g., p. 170–171), decides it best here not to “inquire into the cause of the Divine will . . . bridling the presumption of reason.”
  20.  Luther, Bondage of the Will, 194.
  21.  Luther, Bondage of the Will, 194.
  22.  Luther, Bondage of the Will, 194.
  23.  Luther, Bondage of the Will, 170–171.
  24.  One example among many: “For reason, by her inferences and syllogisms, explains and pulls the Scriptures of God whichever way she likes” (p. 152).
  25.  Luther, Bondage of the Will, 215.
  26.  Luther, Bondage of the Will, 192.
  27.  Luther, Bondage of the Will, 93.
  28.  Luther, Bondage of the Will, 124.
  29.  Luther, Bondage of the Will, 189. Or these other examples: “the entire Scripture, every jot and tittle of it, stands on my side” (p. 273); “If, therefore, we conduct our argument with Scripture as judge, the victory in every respect belongs to me” (p. 312).
  30.  Luther’s biblical examples, sometimes obviously contradictory to his argument, begin on page 125 under the heading for III.iv: “That the teaching of Scripture is clear and decisive.”
  31.  Moisés Silva, “Has the Church Misread the Bible? The History of Interpretation in the Light of Current Issues” in Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation, Moisés Silva, ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 19.
  32.  Catechism of the Catholic Church, 846–848.

One response

  1. I always appreciate your thoughtful and thought provoking essays, even when I am much in disagreement with your position. There apparently does exist a modicum of intelligence within the Evangelical community

    You might be unfair to ol’ man Luther, in regard to his apparent, and occasionally real self-contradictions. I could point out that your emphasis on tradition and authority of the community seems contradictory to the spirit of Semper Reformanda, which you celebrate. In practicable reality, well attested by ecclesiastical history, even of the magisterial Protestant denominations, the former emphasis becomes a sclerotic institutional impediment to the latter. These are complex tensions, not unlike the centrifugal and centripetal forces which maintain the planetary and lunar orbits in their path, which may never be resolved in this life.

    I am very much opposed to this emphasis on tradition and seminarian/ecclesiastical authority for extensive and well-justified reasons. However, I recognize that the radical atomism and ensuing fragmentation of the ‘visible church’ is hardly a virtue. But how much of that fragmentation is due to a lack of intellectual integrity or the promoting of secondary and trivial issues into essentials, the “essentiality” having no exegetical/hermeneutical basis for schism and ecclesiastical expulsions (and occasionally sociopolitical oppression)? Furthermore, in rendering the history of Christendom, it would seem that the greatest and more enduring insidious infestations of anthropogenic theological innovation and corruption derives from the credentialed and educated seminarian elite.

    And which is greatest danger to an individual’s salvation: an honest misunderstanding which deleterious ontological consequences may correct; or the propensity to make a seminarian/ecclesiastical tradition to be the final arbiter and object of faith, even above that of the God in Christ of Scriptures?

    From a broader perspective, enforced ecclesiastical hegemony versus radical fragmentation are merely representations of the age-old sociopolitical problem in balancing between tyranny and chaos.

Leave a Reply