My heart became hot within me. As I mused, the fire burned; then I spoke with my tongue: "O Lord, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am!"

03 May 2005

Notes on Luther, 6

Bondage of the Will, Part 3, paragraphs 1-3

1. Appealing to the Ancients - Here's a tricky one; your opponent claims that the weight of church history, especially of the church fathers, is squarely on his side. How to respond? In many ways, it appeared that Erasmus had the numbers on his side and then challenged Luther about abandoning the testimony of the ancients. Luther first expresses that his position is not without supporters (most notably Augustine), then that he only departed from the church's historical teaching when prompted by Scripture and conscience.

Luther then reminds his reader that imperfections were present in the fathers just as every other man (even the apostle Peter who spoke so rashly) – some of whom may not have been true believers. Luther proceeds to go on the offensive, drawing Erasmus appeal to the fathers together with his support of freewill. Why not have the church fathers prove freewill by showing evidence of the Spirit apart from grace, by working miracles out of their own will rather than God's, or by progressing in holiness through an exertion of their own might. It has never, and will never, happen. Thus, not only are the fathers not fully authoritative, their very imperfections prove Luther's position that freewill is an illusion.

2. Appealing to the church of history
– A similar argument by Erasmus is this: it is simply unbelievable that God would have let this error, if it is an error, to continue so long unchecked. Luther responds that the true (i.e., invisible) church never errs. He supports this with an argument for this theological distinction between the visible church, which includes unregenerate, and the invisible church, composed of only the elect. [Here I think Luther's position is weak – it's hard to support the argument that the invisible church never errs; it's easier to show that God often waits for seemingly lengthy periods of time before correcting His people; indeed, His delay is itself a symbol of mercy.]

Luther shows grace in having charity accept baptism as a true sign of conversion, until otherwise proven. But he's also not naïve enough to believe all the baptized speak with the same authority or understanding. He wisely points out that the church fathers themselves often disagreed; if we are to appeal to those fathers, we have no ultimate standard of discrimination other than Scripture...

3. Appealing to Scripture
– Erasmus settles firmly in the “undecided” category because there are learned men on both sides and the Bible “is somewhat deficient in clarity at present.” This is a line of argumentation that would lead one to desire another authoritative voice, namely that of the bishop of Rome. This is how, according to Luther, men have exalted themselves above Scripture, justifying whatever actions seem best to them.

Men's responsibility, however, is to judge, to decide where the truth lies. The first standard of judgment is the inward enlightening of the Holy Spirit, the “internal perspicuity of the Holy Scripture.” The second standard is the external perspicuity of the Scripture, or the clarity of Scripture as taught by honest preachers and teachers of God. For it should be settled as fundamental, and most firmly fixed in the minds of Christians, that the Holy Scriptures are a spiritual light far brighter than the sun, especially in what relates to salvation and all essential matters.

[These points are a great call for us to decide what our standards and ultimate standard will be. What place will the fathers have in helping you decide right and wrong, true and false? What place will Scripture have? Elevating the second is not to trash the first, but to give the first something to aspire to, to have that final, ultimately trustworthy authority that all men ought to crave.]


Peter Sean Bradley said...

I think my slim book on Erasmus/Luther's discourse on Free Will slights Luther's arguments. Here is an on-line version of Luther's Bondage of the Will but I'm having problems correlating that site with your presentation.

One of my confusions or concerns about Luther's argument is that he appears to be shifting the burden of proof. Erasmus argues - convincingly in my opinion - that there has always been a thread favoring some kind of "free will" in scripture, in tradition, in the writings of the fathers, that is opposed by the a "non-free will thread." He then asks what to do we do with this situation and he not unreasonably attempts to come up with some kind of harmony where free will exists but is not totally efficacious. To me, that seems like a fair approach supported by the "data."

Luther's response is to point out something that Erasmus acknowledges - namely that there is a diversity of understanding on the subject - and declare that Erasmus hasn't met his burden of proof. But why should Erasmus bear a burden of proof here? Further, Erasmus' point is that these two threads can't be ignored and that they have to be reconciled.

I felt that Erasmus came out the better on the exchange, but if you could explain to me your thoughts on this I'd be very appreciative.

Jared said...

Hi Peter!

First off, I'm using an translation of Bondage of the Will by JI Packer and OR Johnston, published by Baker House Books. Looking at that website, I'm having the same trouble you are because the divisions are not coordinated at all (which makes me wonder if the divisions are original - do you know?). Sorry I can't solve that riddle.

I'll give some thoughts on your gracious comments:

1. on the "free-will" thread and our responsibility to that thread. Luther will argue later that there is no free-will thread in Scripture, so I'll save those comments until I get there in the book. However, he does acknowledge that there is some freewill, semi-Pelagian theology among the church fathers. Before he shifts the burden of proof (which he does do here), he simply points out that the fathers' testimony is not unified and thus cannot be swallowed whole. The two threads indeed may exist, but we cannot be left saying that Scripture is speaking out of both sides of its mouth. Also, we cannot assert or imply that the church (present or past) carries the weight of authority of Scripture.

You and I may end up disagreeing, then, on the place/authority that the fathers should have. As a Psalm singer, I often call people to view the testimony of the church as a check to their theology; that is, if you are going to disagree with thousands of years of practice in the church, you'd better have a really good reason. But those good reasons do exist, which is what Luther claims: that his conscience is bound by Scripture, not by the fathers, who, as noble as they truly were, never carried the flag of infallibility.

He does indeed shift the burden of proof, though not wholly. The reason, I think, that Erasmus bears the burden of proof is because Luther believed he had solid foundation in Scripture for what he taught. Erasmus took the position of arguing for less stringency, more diversity allowed in the camp. It seems to be the one trying to dethrone the stronger conviction has the bigger job to do; simply saying there is diversity of opinion on the matter is an underhanded way of implying that we cannot know the truth on the matter, that Scripture is not clear - that's exactly what Erasmus said. One of the main tenets of the Reformation is the clarity, the understandability of God's Word. So, a call for harmony based on the presence of diversity simply doesn't account for Luther's strong belief that God's Word teaches clearly that man's will is ultimate not free, though man always freely chooses.

Hope this helps explain my thoughts.

2. As far as finding a balance where freewill exists w/o complete efficacy, you'd have to answer Luther's assertion that freewill without full efficacy is no freewill at all. Freewill that needs an outside force simply isn't free.

Here other theologians come to help us with more precise wording; Augustine, Jonathan Edwards and many after have commented that every man always does what he wants to do. It's the *want* that's the issue; men are born not wanting God and, apart from the Spirit's regeneration, will never want Him, and thus they continue *freely* rejecting God.