Luther on the Will’s Bondage

This week I am taking a class on the theology of Martin Luther taught by the excellent Dennis Ngien. One of our class assignments is to give a short, oral presentation on a particular work of Luther. I gave my presentation today on Luther’s Introduction, Seventh Chapter and Conclusion to The Bondage of the Will. Below I’m posting my two page presentation just for the sake of it.

Martin Luther – Bondage of the Will
Theology of Luther (Htheo 603)
Ian Hugh Clary

The humanist philosopher Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536) offered an academic response to the Reformation in a diatribe entitled A Disquisition Upon Free Will (1524). Rhetorically it was a well-written treatise; theologically it left much to be desired. However, because of Erasmus’ notoriety as a scholar and critic of Roman Catholic excesses, the great Reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546) was finally convinced by friends to write a response that he published the following year, entitled The Bondage of the Will (1525).[1]
In the Introduction, Luther explains the apologetic nature of the work. The Augustinian monk had observed that many were being swayed by Erasmus’ stature as a humanist thinker and were absorbing his thought regarding the nature of the will. Luther went so far as to claim, “Christian truth is in danger in many hearts.”
[2] This danger is primarily what he sought to correct. Yet, in spite of the vitriolic language he employed, it is nice to note that he held out hope “that God may even condescend to visit you, most excellent Erasmus, by me, His poor weak vessel, and I may come to you by this book in a happy hour and gain a beloved brother.”[3]
It is to chapter seven of the Packer-Johnston translation that Luther’s positive exposition of the Biblical texts on the bondage of the will can be found. In particular, Luther examines a variety of Johannine and Pauline
[4] passages refuting free will. He also utilises various theological and historical motifs against free will, such as the issue of ceremonial works; the purpose of the law; and the Pelagian doctrine of merit. It is a veritable treasure-trove of Reformed teaching on original sin, predestination and other related soteriological themes. As Luther glibly notes, “[M]y doctrines are fortified with mighty Scripture proofs” implying that Erasmus’ were not, eloquent though his writing may be.[5] A brief sampling of Luther’s argumentation will suffice for the sake of time and space.
Under the second heading dealing with Romans 3:9ff, 19ff, Luther shows that the universal dominion of sin disproves free will. He emphasizes Paul’s use of the word “all” showing that both Jew and Greek are under sin. Luther observes that, “By saying ‘all’ he [that is, Paul] excepts none.”
[6] Because of the magnitude of sin’s control, all men “will and do nothing but evil.”[7] Only those who are “Jews in spirit,”[8] namely Christians, are exempt from this universal indictment. Luther elaborates saying,
You cannot find a way out by saying: though they are under sin, yet the best part in them, that is, reason and will, makes endeavours towards good. For if the endeavour that remains to them is good, Paul’s statement that they are under sin is false.
[9]
Luther correctly observes that if man had inherent qualities, even within the will or reason, that would gain them access to God, grace becomes superfluous. “[I]f they could initiate something by themselves, they would not need grace.”
[10]
In the Conclusion to The Bondage of the Will, Luther gleefully pounces on Erasmus requesting that a promise the latter made would be kept; namely, “You promised that you would yield to him who taught better than yourself.”
[11] Of course, Luther well thought that he had done this! Although there is much of a taunting tone, Luther recognized Erasmus’ gifts as a writer and entreated his sparring partner to maintain his writing, without foray into the world of theology. There is a note of sincerity when Luther closes with the prayer “That the Lord will speedily make you as much my superior in this as you already are in all other respects.”[12]

[1] Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will: A New Translation of De Servo Arbitrio (1525) Martin Luther’s Reply to Erasmus of Rotterdam eds J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston (Westwood, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1957).
[2] Luther, Bondage of the Will, 64.
[3] Luther, Bondage of the Will, 64.
[4] Luther refers to John and Paul as his “two generals” whom, with their few legions, were brought “into the fray” against Erasmus (Luther, Bondage of the Will, 273).
[5] Luther, Bondage of the Will, 63.
[6] Luther, Bondage of the Will, 278.
[7] Luther, Bondage of the Will, 278.
[8] Luther, Bondage of the Will, 279.
[9] Luther, Bondage of the Will, 279.
[10] Luther, Bondage of the Will, 279.
[11] Luther, Bondage of the Will, 319.
[12] Luther, Bondage of the Will, 320.
Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s