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by Marius Benec

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Book Review: "The Bondage of the Will"


Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012. Translated by J. I. Packer and O. R. Johnston

Pp.13-320, paperback, £18.91


The Bondage of the Will” in its original title De Servo Arbitrio, is an intellectual historical critique first published by Martin Luther in 1525. It was written as a reply to Desiderius Erasmus’ Diatribe seu collatio de libero arbitrio (Discussion, or Collation, concerning Free-Will), which was published in 1524. This has been considered by many to be a writing central to the Reformation. Indeed, the topic of “free-will” is crucial to the Protestant Reformation as it supports Luther’s argument for the justification by faith alone in a direct attack against Rome. In this edition the translators, J. I. Packer and O. R. Johnston provide an introductory survey to Erasmus’ and Luther’s early lives leading up to the time of their writings and followed by the actual text of “The Bondage of the Will”.

Erasmus’ humanistic studies are evidenced in his work in which he claimed that man possess “free-will” to choose between good and evil. Following the semi-Pelagian scholastic tradition, Erasmus held the view that sin has not made humans utterly incapable of meritorious actions and that salvation is determined by a particular meritorious act which humans perform in their own strength and without divine assistance. Although Erasmus held firm to his position, he claimed that matters of doctrine were unimportant, the least of them the issue of man’s “free-will”. Luther, on the other hand, held that doctrines were essential to the Christian religion, and in particular the issue in question which is the cornerstone of the gospel and the very foundation of faith. He denied “free-will” by affirming man's total inability to save himself, and the sovereignty of divine grace in man’s salvation. For Luther, Christianity was a “dogmatic religion, or it was nothing” (44). It is of great importance to remark that Erasmus’ doctrinal indifferentism was meant to secure peace in the Church. As in many churches today, this was of more value than any doctrine.

In the introduction to his work, Luther begins by praising Erasmus for his eloquence in his writing but at the same time heavily criticising his opponent for his lack of knowledge in the subject. Luther begins his critique by tackling Erasmus’ statements made in the preface of the Diatribe. A defence on the clarity and sufficiency of Scripture is presented as a response to his opponent’s claim that parts of Scripture remain abstruse. The first “bombshell”, as Luther describes it, rests in his claim that “God foreknows nothing contingently”, but “does everything according to His own immutable, eternal and infallible will” (80). This argument, says Luther not only denies “free-will”, but serves as assurance in God’s promises.

For most of Luther’s critique of the Diatribe preface, he tackles Erasmus’ alleged advantage of suppressing certain truths. Erasmus acknowledges the truths of Scripture but objects their value and more so considers them harmful to the ordinary reader. Luther refutes these arguments by asking rhetorically should the Bible truths be measured according to the feelings of men? Luther understood that at the heart of Erasmus’ argument was the fear of reducing human responsibility to nothing. As a response Luther affirms that biblical truth does not impede someone from reforming their life. Instead, it causes humility and fear of God by acknowledging God’s grace. Moreover, these truths are meant to work humbleness and faith in the heart of the elect.

In tackling the introduction of the Diatribe, Luther discusses the holiness of old saints, scholars, and martyrs as alleged examples of “free-will”. He also answers the question how could God overlook such an error and for such a long period of time in church history. In addressing this question Luther argues that the true church consists only of those who hold on to the correct doctrine and those who repented of their initial error. In supporting his argument Luther delivers another defence of the authority of Scripture using selected texts from both the Old and the New Testaments.

Luther’s critique of the Diatribe takes an important turn as he begins to discuss Erasmus’ definition of the “free-will”. In his definition Erasmus attributes to man the power of the will to “apply himself to those things that lead to eternal salvation” (137). Luther compares Erasmus’ definition to that of Pelagius’ in which two parts contribute to “free-will”: the power of discernment and the power of choice. Erasmus’ definition, says Luther, sets aside the power of discernment, thus making the “free-will” able to move itself by its own power. To shed light in the matter, Luther appeals to Augustine’s teaching that the so-called “free-will”, of its own power is in fact a slave to sin. In his analysis, Luther identifies three views about the “free-will” from Erasmus’ text: (i) the “probable enough” view which denies that man can will good without special grace, (ii) the “more severe” view that “free-will” benefits nothing but sinning without the work of grace, and (iii) the “most severe” view that God works in man both good and evil. Luther finds here that the definition of “free-will” provided by Erasmus contradicts the first view which he defends in his Diatribe. Several texts from the Old Testament, the New Testament, and from the book of Ecclesiasticus (not in the Protestant canon) are used by Erasmus to support his view. These are argued against by Luther who claims that God’s commands do not imply the human ability to obey them. Luther identifies one purpose for the law and that is to reveal sin and accuse man who is unable to keep the law. This is referring to the moral law that displays God’s character and which fallen man cannot keep without God’s grace. But what is omitted here is that God also gave Israel the civil law for the purpose of distinguishing themselves from the pagan nations around them and to be a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:6). More so the ceremonial laws were also given to prescribe the way Israel is to approach God in worship. God’s calling to the nation of Israel to obey them is clear when saying: “this commandment which I command you today is not too difficult for you, nor is it out of reach” (Deuteronomy 30:11). Eternal salvation was never meant to be earned through the keeping of these laws. Rather, they were given for specific purposes as guidance for Israel’s conduct. When the passage of Matthew 23:37 is brought into consideration, Luther resolves to invoke God’s secret will that man cannot attain to. Despite Luther’s sharp critique of Erasmus’ claims, this section gives the reader the impression that Luther is somehow left without a satisfactory explanation. The reference quoted in this context does seem to argue that some passages such as this fall outside of man’s ability to understand them, thus less than clear in interpretation.

In the next section of his treatise Luther discusses the questions of the hardening of Pharoah’s heart with reference to Exodus 4:21 and the election of Jacob over Esau of Genesis 25:21-23. About the former, Luther argues that there is no difference between the already hardened heart of Pharoah as a fallen man, and the further hardening as the heart here is at the same impotent state to will good. Without God’s grace Pharoah’s heart is only increasingly hardened by the prospect of losing his dominion over the Israelites. The important remark here is that according to Luther, God does not inflict new evil upon man. Rather He uses the human corruption already present in the man’s heart to delay Israel’s redemption in order to display His glory. The latter issue discussed in this section leaves an open question of exegetical concern as to whether God’s election of Jacob refers to eternal election or temporal order of earthly servitude. Finally in this section and probably the clearest argument against the “free-will” is the commentary on the metaphor of the potter and the clay of Romans 9:21. A further discussion here is to determine whether apostle Paul meant to quote Isaiah 45:9 and Jeremiah 18:6 since these two references seem to refer to temporal affliction on the nation of Israel rather than discussing the issue of predestination.

Finally, in the last section of his book Luther brings his own arguments and Bible references to demolish the argument for the “free-will”. In answering Erasmus, Luther shows his protest against Rome by driving home the idea that the works of the law cannot be added to the grace of Jesus Christ for salvation. It is salvation by grace alone that drove the Reformation and Luther knew the importance of concluding his book with this truth. The answer to Erasmus’ humanistic view of the “free-will” would not only clarify an important doctrine, but it would also contribute to the entire understanding of the gospel blurred by Rome and the papacy at that time.

Luther’s work is no doubt one of the most essential writings from the Reformation period and a must read for every student of the Reformation and Protestantism. Despite Luther’s heavy denial of human responsibility, he brings a healthy understanding of the “bondage of the will” and resurfaces Augustine’s teaching on the matter.

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