Saturday, August 14, 2010

Luther: The power of Free Will is Nil

The following is from the webpage Luther, Exposing the Myth, under the heading of "Free Will":

"...we do everything of necessity and nothing by 'free-will'; for the power of 'free-will' is nil..." [From the essay, 'Bondage of the Will,' 'Martin Luther: Selections From His Writings, ed. by Dillenberger, Anchor Books, 1962 p. 188]
Luther Exposing the Myth appears to be the product of an Australian Roman Catholic website. They also appear to be arguing by use of a "shock quote" against Luther's denial of free will and his claim that everything occurs by necessity.

Luther Exposing the Myth documents their Luther citation as "From the essay, 'Bondage of the Will,' 'Martin Luther: Selections From His Writings, ed. by Dillenberger, Anchor Books, 1962 p. 188." The Bondage of the Will is more than simply an essay, it is one of Luther's most important longer writings. Dillenberger's book is just as the title suggests: it's a basic anthology of Luther's writings. For his excepts from The Bondage of the Will, Dillenberger says he utilized The Bondage of the Will, translated by J.I Packer and A.R. Johnston (London: James Clarke and Co. Ltd., 1957; Westwood, N.J.: Fleming H. Revel Company, 1957); 104-7, 169-71, 205-212, 313-18. The excerpt cited by Luther, Exposing the Myth is from Luther's review of Erasmus' Preface in the Packer / Johnston translation (p.105). In its original source, the quote can be found in WA 18:636,

There are a few things going on in the context. First, Luther does discuss necessity, second he discusses Erasmus' view of free will. Once these are digested, the obscure Luther quote makes a bit more sense. The quote is actually Luther using the words of Erasmus to prove his very point: the will isn't free and God necessitates all things.

In the previous section titled "Of the importance of knowing that God necessitates all things," Luther chastises Erasmus for avoiding discussing God's foreknowledge and related issues. Luther argues thus:

[I]f you hesitate to believe, or are too proud to acknowledge, that God foreknows and wills all things, not contingently, but necessarily and immutably, how can you believe, trust and rely on His promises? When He makes promises, you ought to be out of doubt that He knows, and can and will perform, what He promises; otherwise, you will be accounting Him neither true nor faithful, which is unbelief, and the height of irreverence, and a denial of the most high God! 
And how can you be thus sure and certain, unless you know that certainly, infallibly, immutably and necessarily, He knows, wills and will perform what He promises? Not only should we be sure that God wills, and will execute His will, necessarily and immutably; we should glory in the fact, as Paul does in Rom. 3 [:4]—let God be true, but every man a liar', and again, `Not that the word of God has failed' [Rom. 9:6], and in another place, 'The foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal, the Lord knoweth them that are his' [II Tim. 2:19]. In Tit. 1 [:2] he says: `Which God, that cannot lie, promised before the world began'. And Heb. 11 [ :6] says: `He that cometh, must believe that God is, and that he is a rewarder of them that hope in him'. If, then, we are taught and believe that we ought to be ignorant of the necessary foreknowledge of God and the necessity of events, Christian faith is utterly destroyed, and the promises of God and the whole gospel fall to the ground completely; for the Christian's chief and only comfort in every adversity lies in knowing that God does not lie, but brings all things to pass immutably, and that His will cannot be resisted, altered or impeded. [Packer, Johnston, p. 83-84; Dillenberger, pp. 184-185].

A bit later, Luther then goes after Erasmus over his definition of free will. Luther quotes Erasmus describing free will as ineffective apart from the grace of God. Luther then corners Erasmus by turning his words against him: if free will is ineffective without grace, then it is enslaved to evil:
You describe the power of `free-will' as small, and wholly ineffective apart from the grace of God. Agreed? Now then, I ask you: if God's grace is wanting, if it is taken away from that small power, what can it do? It is ineffective, you say, and can do nothing good. So it will not do what God or His grace wills. Why? Because we have now taken God's grace away from it, and what the grace of God does not do is not good. Hence it follows that `free-will' without God's grace is not free at all, but is the permanent prisoner and bondslave of evil, since it cannot turn itself to good. This being so, I give you full permission to enlarge the power of `free-will' as much as you like; make it angelic, make it divine, if you can!—but when once you add this doleful postscript, that it is ineffective apart from God's grace, straightway you rob it of all its power. What is ineffective power but (in plain language) no power? So to say that `free-will' exists and has power, albeit ineffective power, is, in the Sophists' phrase, a contradiction in terms. It is like saying "free-will" is something which is not free'—as if you said that fire is cold and earth hot. Fire certainly has power to heat; but if hell-fire (even) was cold and chilling instead of burning and scorching, I would not call it `fire', let alone• 'hot' (unless you meant to refer to an imaginary fire, or a painted one). Note, however, that if we meant by `the power of free-will' the power which makes human beings fit subjects to be caught up by the Spirit and touched by God's grace, as creatures made for eternal life or eternal death, we should have a proper definition. And I certainly acknowledge the existence of this power, this fitness, or 'dispositional quality' and `passive aptitude' (as the Sophists call it), which, as everyone knows, is not given to plants or animals. As the proverb says, God did not make heaven for geese! [Packer, Johnston, p. 104-105; Dillenberger, pp. 187-188].
Then comes the obscure quote:
It is a settled truth, then, even on the basis of your own testimony, that we do everything of necessity, and nothing by `free-will'; for the power of `free-will' is nil, and it does no good, nor can do, without grace. (Unless you intend `efficacy' to be taken in a new sense, as implying completion, and are suggesting that `free-will' can actually will and begin a thing, though it cannot complete it. This I do not believe; I shall say more on the point later.) It follows, therefore, that `free-will' is obviously a term applicable only to the Divine Majesty; for only He can do, and does (as the Psalmist sings) `whatever he wills in heaven and earth' [Ps. 135:6]. If `free-will' is ascribed to men, it is ascribed with no more propriety than divinity itself would be—and no blasphemy could exceed that! So it befits theologians to refrain from using the term when they want to speak of human ability, and to leave it to be applied to God only. They would do well also to take the term out of men's mouths and speech, and to claim it for their God, as if it were His own holy and awful Name. If they must at all hazards assign some power to men, let them teach that it must be denoted by some other term than `free-will'; especially since we know from our own observation that the mass of men are sadly deceived and misled by this phrase. The meaning which it conveys to their minds is far removed from anything that theologians believe and discuss. The term `free-will' is too grandiose and comprehensive and fulsome. People think it means what the natural force of the phrase would require, namely, a power of freely turning in any direction, yielding to none and subject to none. If they knew that this was not so, and that the term signifies only a tiny spark of power, and that utterly ineffective in itself, since it is the devil's prisoner and slave, it would be a wonder if they did not stone us as mockers and deceivers, who say one thing and mean another —indeed, who have not yet decided what we do mean! For, as the wise man says, 'he who speaks sophistically is hateful' [? Pr. 6:17], especially if he does so in matters of religion, where eternal salvation is at stake. [Packer, Johnston, p. 105-106; Dillenberger, 188].
Alternate translation:
It is settled, then, even on your own testimony, that we do everything by necessity, and nothing by free choice, since the power of free choice is nothing and neither does nor can do good in the absence of grace—unless you wish to give “efficacy” a new meaning and understand it as “perfection,” as if free choice might very well make a start and will something, though it could not carry it through. But that I do not believe, and will say more about it later. It follows now that free choice is plainly a divine term, and can be properly applied to none but the Divine Majesty alone; for he alone can do and does (as the psalmist says [Ps. 115:3]) whatever he pleases in heaven and on earth. If this is attributed to men, it is no more rightly attributed than if divinity itself also were attributed to them, which would be the greatest possible sacrilege. Theologians therefore ought to have avoided this term when they wished to speak of human ability, leaving it to be applied to God alone. They should, moreover, have removed it from the lips and language of men, treating it as a kind of sacred and venerable name for their God. And if they attributed any power at all to men, they should teach that it must be called by another name than free choice, especially as we know and clearly perceive that the common people are miserably deceived and led astray by that term, since they hear and understand it in a very different sense from that which the theologians mean and discuss.
For the expression “free choice” is too imposing, too wide and full, and the people think it signifies—as the force and nature of the term requires—a power that can turn itself freely in either direction, without being under anyone’s influence or control. If they knew that it was not so, but that hardly the tiniest spark of power was meant by this term, and a spark completely ineffectual by itself as a captive and slave of the devil, it would be surprising if they did not stone us as mockers and deceivers who say one thing and mean something quite different, or rather who have not yet decided or agreed on what we do mean. For he who speaks sophistically is hateful, as the Wise Man says [Prov. 6:17], particularly if he does this in matters of piety, where eternal salvation is at stake [LW 33:68-69].

When Luther says "we do everything of necessity, and nothing by `free-will'; for the power of `free-will' is nil, and it does no good, nor can do, without grace," he's turning the position of Erasmus against itself. Luther argues throughout for the need of grace to free the enslaved will. In a previous blog post  we saw that even a Roman Catholic scholar admits Erasmus minimized the need for grace and the enslavement of mankind to sin.

True, Luther's using the words of Erasmus to argue for his own position, so in this sense, Luther Exposing the Myth has the sentiment of the quote correct. On the other hand, Luther Exposing the Myth completely ignores Luther's argumentation about necessity and the will. Rather, they set up a Pelagian paradigm which is quite reminiscent of that of Erasmus. Both Luther Exposing the Myth and Erasmus either minimize or ignore grace. What Roman Catholic scholar Harry McSorley points out about Erasmus could very well be said about Luther Exposing the Myth:
Erasmus defines free will in terms of salvation--without mentioning grace. Erasmus gives no hint in his definition that man the sinner is enslaved to sin until he is liberated by grace. The definition is surely one of the "extraordinary blunders" which, according to P. Hughes, characterize De libero arbitrio [Jared Wicks. ed., Catholic Scholars Dialogue With Luther (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1970), p. 112].
With this particular Luther quote, the outrage on behalf of Luther, Exposing the Myth appears to be that Luther denies free will and says everything occurs by necessity. Why is this an outrage? Perhaps it's because this same website hosts The Catechism Simply Explained By Canon Cafferata which states:

74. What will Christ say to the wicked?
Christ will say to the wicked, "Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, which was prepared for the devil and his angels.”
These words, quoted from our Lord's description of the Last Judgement (Matt.25:41), have a terrifying significance. They are set in contrast to the words which will be quoted in the next question. To the good Christ will say, “Come”. To the wicked He will say, “Depart”. And, as the text shows, the welcome and the rejection are equally irrevocable. The bad will go into everlasting punishment; the just into life everlasting (Matt.25:46). Our Lord tells us that God created hell for the devil and the rebellious angels, not for man. But man has free will and by his conscience he knows the moral law imposed on him by God. If he dies in deliberate rebellion against the law, he inevitably incurs the penalty of that rebellion; he condemns himself to hell. Faced with this awful fact of eternal punishment, let us remember that no man will be subjected to it who does not deserve it. God is infinitely just; by His very nature, therefore, He cannot punish anyone beyond his deserts. If we lead a good life we have no cause to fear the loss of our immortal souls. [source]

The next section goes on to say, "We must work our way to heaven; and the only way of getting there is the way laid down by our Lord, not the way we think is right or we or other men have invented." Once again, these defenders of Rome  have a good dose of Pelagianism in their veins. When they went after Luther over the law of God they quoted Matthew 19:17 without a context, making Christ appears to be teaching that eternal life is gained by works.

If the author of Luther Exposing the Myth takes such theology seriously, one can understand why Luther's words come across as shocking. If free will is nil, and everything happens by necessity, then it appears God is not infinitely just as the above catechism states. Rather, they would rather have salvation based on works. I can't help but wonder how Roman Catholic these defenders of Rome are. I haven't come across such blatant Pelagiansim on other Roman Catholic websites. It's usually far more subtle.

Addendum (2016)
This blog entry is a revision of an entry I posted back in 2010. The original can be found here. Because so many sources are now available online, I'm revising older entries by adding additional materials and commentary, and also fixing or deleting dead hyperlinks. Nothing of any significant substance has changed in this entry from that presented in the former.

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