Luther, Erasmus and Bondage – Quick Thoughts

Introduction:

The 1525 response by Martin Luther to the previous year’s earnest proposal by Erasmus, our prince of humanism, is a rather brash, off-putting defense of the Reformation-era belief that humans are deprived of all that is good and holy, that all works done are evil unless done in the spirit, and that predestination is the explanation of the role of grace in calling sinners to repentance. The argument is whether or not humans are empowered by Grace with the ability to choose either salvation or sin, or as the German berauscht Prediger understood it, that Grace compels the individual to salvation in the absence of self-determination. This essay will examine subsection four of Part VI in Luther’s, De Servo Arbitrio, in which the author attempts to solidify his stance that free will, or free choice, is not Scriptural and is more of an invention of the “Sophists.” Moving from this, we will highlight the strengths, if there are any, as well as his weaknesses. This disquisition will then close with a theological engagement of this subsection.

Luther’s Argument:

In subsection four of Part VI, Luther moves into familiar, to me, territory of arguing that the will is bound by the mythological Satan so that there is no longer any ability to do good works by the person. Before he arrives to this point, the (former) Augustinian Monk attempts to deprive the individual of any moral or good work unless that person is a Christian. He begins by turning to Paul’s Roman epistle to mine it for the apostolic image of Abraham. Quoting Paul, Luther reminds Erasmus that Abraham was justified without works, and of course, justification occurs only before God. Before the eyes of the world, Luther’s man, works are those important things which set apart the worker, but before God, they are meaningless. Faith, then, is what God requires, and not works, as seen clearly in the primordial story of Abraham.

Luther allows that there is a righteousness of works, but these works and this righteousness is only civil. He separates these civil works, however, from later ceremonial works of the Mosaic Law, but about the “best ones” which Abraham did in what I assume was Abraham’s pre-modern body politic. These, he insists, aren’t really righteous, since they are not what clothe the patriarch before God. These works, then, remain in “a state of ungodliness” unless coupled with faith. Even then, Luther demands they remain, while made righteous, merely as works and are unaccountable before God. Thus, he draws the conclusion that works, unless they are performed by those with faith, are “damnable and deserving of wrath.” Why? Luther would insist that all works, even those done in penitence or with good motivations, are done by the individual while under the will of Satan. Thus, those works and “aspirations” committed under free will are those actually driven by Satan, perhaps, as a way to achieve salvation and thus impose upon God’s will, our own, or rather, Satan’s so that as Luther would have seen the Lucifer story in Isaiah 14 as humanity attempting to become God.  Later in the subsection, he calls them “nothing but sins, evils, and impieties.” He suggests that the Sophists are wrong, that an evil man cannot produce good works. Thus, this righteousness is righteousness in name only, and thus counterfeit.

Real righteousness, Luther insists, is that of faith which finds its origins in God towards us. Faith through grace is a reward from God and is imputed (reckoned). There is little wonder why Luther would later consider this particular work of his crowning achievements, because it is this work which has given the Reformed and other Protestant Traditions the doctrine of imputation. Luther sees this doctrine clearly in Paul, noting that the Apostle “dwells” on the word, calling our attention to “how he stresses, repeats and insists on it.”  Paul’s repetition of the world in chapter four of Romans is enough to call Luther’s attention to it as a sign that this was Paul’s essential doctrine of grace, imputation. The Reformer notes that in this view, free will has no place here, because it is God who imputes grace and not something we freely chose. At this point, Luther connects imputation to the choice between that person who works and that person who does not work. He has already noted that those who work outside of grace are unrighteous and their works unrighteousness. This must then lead us to conclude that imputation cannot come except by not working.

From Abraham, Luther works backwards to Adam. If we are under sin because of Adam, Luther argues, then we are all under original sin. Original sin removes any hope of free will because our will has been so corrupted that without God first acting, we are unable to make any really free choice. He connects the promise of grace made to the Prophets, exegeted by later Christians out of the Old Testament, as the first act of grace and thus, since the promise came from God, it cannot be earned by works. Luther then moves to interpreting Paul between two dichotomies, that of flesh and spirit, disagreeing with Origen that flesh and spirit is a separate state which the soul may choose. The Reformer sees only flesh and spirit, and those, those we are without the spirit are fleshly, which is the root of their works. Again, the best summation of Luther’s stance here is that those who are not saved, whether they do magnificent works, give to charities, solve crises do these things under the bondage of Satan, making these things evil.

The entirety of this part is that free will cannot please God. In this subsection, Luther believes that he has shown that this is due to the fact that there is no such thing as free will. Our will is so corrupted by Adam’s fall that even our works, even if they are “moral and civil” are only boastful before the world. It is faith which is required by God, but not just any faith. Luther sets this subsection among the others as the one which shows that the doctrine of imputation, which is a God-towards us view, is the key to understanding salvation. If God gives us faith through grace, it is a true gift, and it is what is required in order to do good works, which is faith. Because our will is bound up in Satan, only when God imputes to us faith can we do what is righteous. Until then, everything we are remains corrupted through original sin.

Strengths and Weaknesses:

Luther’s strength is in his position as Reformer. Erasmus never does officially leave the Catholic Church, and as such, is bound by their teachings in Luther’s thought. For Luther, he is not simply attacking Erasmus, but Rome through Erasmus. Thus, his viewpoints will be well received by his contemporaries who have much the same feeling against Rome as he does. Further, his strength is his forcefulness in promoting Scripture above all else. His singular focus is on the Canon of Scripture, and not so much on Tradition, albeit we must detect within Luther the traces of his monastic life as an Augustinian monk. Another is that Luther gives all glory to God, in that only God can pull us out of the ‘miry clay’ of human depravity. To do this, he must insist that humans as a mass are too un-graceful to see the things of God clearly. His is a position of authority, because he has seen the things of God while he accuses all others of being blind and thus, unsaved. In one part, he suggests that Erasmus now has no other choice but to keep silent or to admit defeat, but admits that to make the Priest to do so “is not within our power; it is the gift of the Spirit of God.” While this is argumentum ad ignorantiam, nevertheless, it proves powerful, as for Luther, he returns to Scripture time and time again leaving Erasmus without much defense.

But, Luther is not perfect. His argument, judging it purely by his time, is rather subjective. As much as he would have liked to deny the role of Rome which continued in his thoughts, it nevertheless is present especially through Augustine. His fault, then, is that he is still proving his old teachers right, in attempting to prove that the works of men are evil unless they have faith. He is using Scripture as a proof-text to build on his own views, mentioning a verse here or there. His arguments are often crude, but they are filled with a deep resentment to Erasmus who remained a Catholic priest. We know from the complete history of Luther that his anger fermented against groups which did not heed his call, most notably the Jews.

His weaknesses continue in his approximation of Scripture. As will be discussed in the next section, Luther makes valuable statements but doesn’t see the contradiction which he produces for himself and his arguments. Further, his citations are nothing more than proof-texts, barely taking into account the entirety of the passage in which the verse appears, the book in which the passage appears, of the entire canonical history in which the book appears. He follows the terrible doctrine of Original Sin, as developed by Augustine through a poor translation and poorer understanding of Romans 5, and specifically 5.12. From an ethical standpoint, the idea that all those not imbued with the Spirit of God are evil and thus will produce “nothing but sins, evils, and impieties” is not representative of the human condition in his time or ours. The summation of his weaknesses may be simply styled that Luther was an angry propagandist who saw his opponents as vile enemies and servants of Satan and thus, could not allow that he may have been wrong. This prevented him from hearing any voice but his own, and as mentioned before, placed his emotions in an oak barrel to be fermented into a toxic substance.

Theological Engagement:

Luther is a titan of the Reformation, Protestant Christianity, and indeed, Christianity as a whole; to theologically engage with Luther is to only provoke a rabid lion, but as with any theologian, even Luther, Calvin and Paul, such an engagement is necessary from time to time, even timidly in the presence of one who has studied Luther extensively. Even, I suspect, Luther would agree given his words that contending with Erasmus has strengthened his own position in his own mind. At the start, let me allow that Luther is correct, I believe, on the nature of the needed first imputation of grace before an individual can have faith; however, I do not believe that all works before that are “nothing but sins, evils, and impieties.” Indeed, before Abraham had faith in God, he did a good work by maintaining monotheism according to Jewish tradition. Even then, before God revealed himself to him, Abraham did good works by following God. A quick turn to the Epistle to the Hebrews reveals that the distinction between works and faith is not as obvious as Luther would have us believe which may be one the reasons he sought to rid the New Testament of this work. Granted, we have the benefit of better scholarship, the giants of Wright, Dunn and others and we are able to see less of a distinction between faith and works that Luther saw. However, if we remain in Luther’s time, we see that once the Law was given, works and faith were not so easily separated. Abraham had the free will to continue to follow God and did the works necessary to prove it. Israel had the free will to either worship a golden calf or follow God. I believe that the example of Origen, with the flesh on the left and the spirit on the right, is more representative of the fate of the believer. But, the choice must first be inaugurated from God.

Previously, I mentioned the contradictory statements made by Luther in defense of his position. Luther’s position on “all” is interesting. I would agree with him that all does in fact mean all. All people have sinned. All people are incapable of having a special revelation of God unless the Godself is revealed first. Here, I would agree with Erasmus, that “there is something in man that is good and strives after good.” Here, the connection to Adam is paramount. In Adam is breathed the spark of the divine, something which cannot be corrupted or extinguished, although scarred. While Luther no doubt took Genesis 1 as a scientific event, I am not limited by such theological necessities. Instead, I interpret that the second Creation story is the first identification of God with humanity, the zenith of Creation, to be followed with the final identification of God with humanity, Christ. Through Adam, then, all humans will have the ability to be covenanted with God, something which is finally realized in Christ. If ‘all’ means all, then we can take with sufficient ease that the “all” in Romans 5.18 also equally means “all” in that all will be saved. We must also consider John 12.32-33 in that Christ is said to have related that concerning his death, that it will be the point in which all are drawn back to God. Luther is convinced that none must also be taken in a strict sense and to that I add 2 Peter 3.9 in which we are told that God desires that everyone will repent. If the desire of God is bound in his will, then the desire of God will indeed draw all.

I must also take issue with his belief that without faith all works are “nothing but sins, evils, and impieties.” Let us consider that this may be the case. All works, even to the unbelieving banker who gives away all of his fortune in alms would be evil. Here, Luther would stand against Jesus who commends the giving of alms, promising a reward to those who do (Matthew 6.2-3). In another Gospel, Jesus is said to commend the giving of alms as something which will clean us. (Luke 11.41) Further, to this end, I commend the long list of works which Christ posits as those things which merit salvation (Matthew 25.31-46). Would Luther, in this subsection, suggest that Christ who calls all too freely give that they may freely receive, liberally, is an agent of Satan? We might also consider the reverse of what Luther is saying. If the lack of faith prevents one from doing good works, albeit even those works which are moral or considered alms, then shouldn’t the Spirit of God prevent the individual from sinning, even contrary to what the author of 1 John suggested?

Finally, let us turn to the use of Abraham in this subsection. Luther sees Abraham as the ideal representative of faith versus works, forgetting the main emphasis of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. This emphasis is nothing short of historic given that Paul was coming to preach that Gentiles are now welcomed into the covenant of Israel just as the Jews. Abraham, then, is not contrasting faith and works, but faith and the ethnocentric attitudes of many Jews of his day which saw the Mosaic Law as a boundary to keep people away from God.  Here, Abraham is held up as one who covenanted with God outside the Law, as the archetype of the Gentile believer. Whereas the Law had previously allowed that Gentiles must practically cut away all from themselves that was Gentile and become a Jew, Paul is countering that argument that if this was the case, then Abraham, the progenitor of the Hebraic peoples, would be excluded as well. We find the same type of triumphing and inclusive argument in Hebrews when that author is discussing the priesthood of Aaron and Melchizedek. It is not that one is in complete deficit, but that one has been used to exclude too many from the covenant with God. The Law doesn’t represent evil, or something of an incomplete thought, but that it has now ceased to be useful because it has been corrupted. The works of the Law, then, are not mere actions or ceremony, but that which was meant to draw all to God.

Luther was a man of his times and as such may fall out of our purview to judge, and rightly so; however; we can examine his use of Scripture and doctrines, to see if they are right. His was forceful, and wanted nothing to remove the high view of faith. This high view of faith, however, forced a low view of God’s creation, and his opponents. He was engaged in a great theological war, as he saw it, so he had to continuously strengthen his position. To do so, he denied the validity of any of those who opposed him, suggesting that his view was that of the inspired one. This may be the case, but his statements do not bear this up. As this essay as shown, while he makes use of Scripture, his view is not completely Scriptural. While he insists on the logic of “all” and “none,” if this logic is applied throughout Scripture, then Luther would find himself by necessity a type of universalist. His pastoral concern not to have individuals seek God through vain works, such as indulgences, overrode his scholastic sense in reading Scripture, but he was a man of his times.

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