Deconstructing ’Bondage of the Will’
There is an excerpt of quotes from Luther’s (in)famous book here, and I encourage you to read it before reading my comments. Keep in mind that the writer is holding up these quotes in praise of Luther, so it is not from a detractor who would be accused of taking quotes out of context. But I will be examining these quotes for their logic or lack thereof.
In the “context” paragraph, the writer conveys his/her intent to use the quotes to argue against the view that God gives commands that we are capable of obeying; that is, if there is a command, we have the ability to heed it. Luther’s response to the claim of Erasmus was to cite Paul’s statement that the purpose of law is to make us aware of sin. That is, Luther argued that this is the only reason for law, though such a limitation is not warranted by the context in which Paul wrote it. The writer is confident that Luther showed that “free will is an erroneous, unscriptural doctrine which, ultimately, undermines the gospel itself.” But in context, rather than the commands of God “exist to show, not our moral ability, but our inability”, they exist to show the law’s inability. Now to the quotes.
“For if man has lost his freedom, and is forced to serve sin, and cannot will good, what conclusion can more justly be drawn concerning him, than that he sins and wills evil necessarily?” Martin Luther BW pg. 149
This is classic tautology, or circular reasoning. Luther is merely stating the same thing twice: man is forced to sin, so he is forced to sin. It is a baseless assertion rather than an argument or proof.
“...’if thou art willing’ is a verb in the subjunctive mood, which asserts nothing...a conditional statement asserts nothing indicatively.” “if thou art willing”, “if thou hear”, “if thou do” declare, not man’s ability, but his duty. pg 157
According to this excellent source, there are four different kinds of conditional statements. To determine which this one is, we must check the surrounding grammar. Since no reference is given in the quote we cannot do this. But what we can know without it is that the first class assumes that the premise is true, the second assumes it is false for the sake of argument, the third can indicate either high probability in the future or a present universal truth, and the fourth is not used anywhere in the NT. So the subjunctive mood can indeed assert something, and Luther is thus oversimplifying. This is at least a fallacy of exclusion.
“the commandments are not given inappropriately or pointlessly; but in order that through them the proud, blind man may learn the plague of his impotence, should he try to do as he is commanded.” pg. 160
Luther is essentially arguing that God only gives laws and conditions for the purpose of mocking people for being what he decreed them to be. The law showed people what God required of them without forcing their inability to obey. Surely not even Luther would try to claim that not one solitary Israelite could keep even one law! Yet his statements here leave no room for degree, because to do so would negate his entire premise of total inability. Now someone might object that “to break one is to break all”, but that is in the context of showing that those who break one law cannot look down on those who break a different law. That is, the very statement about breaking one law is proof that other laws were kept, which is what Luther says is impossible in its entirety.
We can also see what this interpretation leads to: a license to sin. After all, why try to keep even one law if we have no such ability? And lest anyone dismiss this as an absurdity, history shows that the “reformers” held this view expressly. The NT teaches us that we have no such license, which in turn is proof that we have the ability to keep laws.
Speaking to Erasmus, “Throughout your treatment you forget that you said that ’free-will’ can do nothing without grace, and you prove that ’free-will’ can do all things without grace! Your inferences and analogies ”For if man has lost his freedom, and is forced to serve sin, and cannot will good, what conclusion can more justly be drawn concerning him, than that he sins and wills evil necessarily?“ Martin Luther BW pg. 149
I’m guessing that this is a typo, where part of the first quote is pasted on top of what should have been here. Regardless, Luther is accusing Erasmus of self-contradiction, but this is impossible to determine without examining Erasmus’ words in context. In all likelihood Luther is equivocating on the word ”grace“ or failing to grasp the meaning of ”prevenient grace“ as opposed to the ”reformed“ concept of grace as a force or imposition. The general non-reformed view is that the grace (favor from the greater to the lesser) of God was required to make salvation possible, and that God in his sovereignty allows people the free will to accept or reject the offer. So as it pertains to the means and method of salvation, the grace of God is required; but as it pertains to individual salvation, the grace of God allows us to freely choose. If this is the proper context, then, Luther has again oversimplified and is burning a straw man.
”Even grammarians and schoolboys on street corners know that nothing more is signified by verbs in the imperative mood than what ought to be done, and that what is done or can be done should be expressed by words in the indicative. How is it that you theologians are twice as stupid as schoolboys, in that as soon as you get hold of a single imperative verb you infer an indicative meaning, as though the moment a thing is commanded it is done, or can be done? pg 159
“The passages of Scripture you cite are imperative; and they prove and establish nothing about the ability of man, but only lay down what is and what not to be done.” pg 161
The thought of grammarians on street corners provides a little comic relief for the modern reader, but of course Luther’s intent is to belittle Erasmus as having made a fundamental blunder of Greek grammar. This is quite a charge to make in light of the grammatical oversimplification Luther committed regarding conditional statements. At any rate, the imperative mood is indeed a command, but it is expected to be carried out. Luther is trying to equivocate on the meaning of commands versus statements of fact, which is what the indicative mood is for (ref. this article). That is, the indicative mood is used to convey something that exists or happens (or the negative of each), while the imperative mood is used to convey an action that someone is required to execute.
Put simply, Luther is pulling grammatical rules out of his hat. To this he adds the bizarre charge that somehow the burden of proof is on Erasmus as to why the rules of Greek grammar should be followed! The fact instead is that it is Luther who must show why a command is suddenly not a command, but a statement of fact is a command. This is the most twisted and ignorant nonsense.
“Does it follow from: ’turn ye’ that therefore you can turn? Does it follow from ”’Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart’ (Deut 6.5) that therefore you can love with all your heart? What do arguments of this kind prove, but the ’free-will’ does not need the grace of God, but can do all things by its own power...But it does not follow from this that man is converted by his own power, nor do the words say so; they simply say: “if thou wilt turn, telling man what he should do. When he knows it, and sees that he cannot do it, he will ask whence he may find ability to do it...” 164
Building on his arrogantly-twisted foundation, Luther now asserts that if we are indeed capable of carrying out God’s commands, that this somehow means God’s grace can be thwarted. But here again, this depends upon an erroneous definiton of grace. And if man has no ability to turn, then how does he have the ability to ask? Luther is violating his own argument here; either there is “bondage of the will” or there is not. And if God must impose the capacity to ask for ability (now there’s an endless regression!), of what purpose is the law? Clearly, if Luther is right, God continually mocks his creatures for being as limited and bound as they were decreed to be, such as when a farmer dangles a carrot in front of a mule.
“By the law is the knowledge of sin’ [Rom 3:20], so the word of grace comes only to those who are distressed by a sense of sin and tempted to despair.” pg. 168
So, the word of grace does not come to those who don’t feel any distress about a sense of sin? This is absurd, but sadly it is the basis for the popular belief that the lost must be dangled over the fires of hell before they will accept the gospel. It was the very apostle Paul that Luther claimed to follow who said, “Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law” (Rom. 2:14). Though there are others, this verse alone mitigates against Luther’s claim that the grace of God (properly defined) cannot reach anyone who is not first shown the law.
As to why some are touched by the law and others not, so that some receive and others scorn the offer of grace...[this is the] hidden will of God, Who, according to His own counsel, ordains such persons as He wills to receive and partake of the mercy preached and offered.“ pg. 169
Here is the root of the familiar ”mystery card“; when one cannot support an argument, one turns to ”mystery“. The only real mystery is why Luther expects others to explain what they believe and back it up with scripture and sound reasoning, but not himself. If Luther makes a claim, Luther has to back it up, but he wants his presupposition (that God picks and chooses whom to save) to be swallowed without question. The fact that mercy is ”preached and offered“ should be proof enough that it is through preaching, not divine lottery, that people partake of the mercy (not force!) God offers (1 Cor. 1:21). There is no mystery in this; God purchased a gift for us and offers it freely to all, such that whoever accepts receives (John 3:16).
God Incarnate says; ’I would, and thou wouldst not.” God Incarnate, I repeat, was sent for this purpose, to will, say, do, suffer and offer to all me, all that is necessary for salvation; albeit He offends many who, being abandoned or hardened by God’s secret will of Majesty, do not receive Him thus willing, speaking, doing, and offering. As John says: “The light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness com comprehendeth it not’ (John 1.5)
Here Luther twists what scripture plainly says (”you would not“) into what it does not say (”you could not“). He admits that his assertion of God mocking people and leaving them to damnation ”offends“, and then rips John 1:5 out of context to apply it as a sort of ”too bad for you“ proof-text. He thus paints God as possessing what I have called ”sovereignty in a moral vacuum“, which can only properly be applied to Satan. God is love, and he cannot violate this aspect of his nature even for the sake of his sovereignty. Luther et al distort the nature of God by making power everything and love nothing, denying any rational definitions of justice and mercy as well. But the ”mystery card“ cannot bail them out. Yes, Luther, this is offensive.
”Apart from grace, ’free-will’ by itself is Satan’s kingdom in all men.“ p. 201
What an ironic placement this quote is, coming as it does after Luther has just assigned the attributes of Satan to God! Who but Satan would deny free will, or send souls to eternal hell ”for his good pleasure“ without regard for anything they had done and without opportunity to choose? Again, the grace of God is an act of pity on beloved creatures, not a show of force and cold-blooded damnation of those he ”mysteriously“ neglected to rescue.
Let all the ’free-will’ in the world do all it can with all its strength; it will never give rise to a single instance of ability to avoid being hardened if God does not give the Spirit, or of meriting mercy if it is left to its own strength.” p. 202
Has Luther so quickly forgotten the first chapter of Romans? Time after time we read, “Because they... God gave them over”; we are told that these wicked people “knew God”; we are told that “their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened”, which cannot happen if they already had futile thinking and dark hearts. People do something and then God responds; people are something and then become something else. Here is clear proof that they were not born evil but chose it. Nowhere in that passage does it say that these changes occured because God failed to act, but only that God paid them the wages of their labors.
There are more quotes, but these should suffice in showing Luther’s sophistry, poor logic, and mocking of both the character of God and the creatures made in God’s image, which includes even the lost (James 3:9). For God to show favoritism, or for Luther to think God is less moral or merciful or loving than his creatures, is the very bad or mixed “fruit” scripture warns us against. Some of it is quite Gnostic, though Calvin’s Augustinian roots are more obvious in this regard. Luther did, as Calvin later would, first presume that human beings had become loathesome worms in God’s eyes, and then build an entire theology out of this.
But scripture, read without “reformed” bias, paints a much different picture of both God and people. The entire Bible is the story of God creating sentient beings rather than robots, working through and around them rather than over them, and without violating free will, outwitting the devil’s scheme of ruining mankind through deception. Sovereignty in a moral vacuum does not provide a Savior, does not teach, does not love, does not weep, does not hold out his hands, does not give hope, does not count the hairs on our heads, and does not stoop to become one of us. That God does all of these things is clear evidence against Luther’s “bondage”.
Satan binds, but God frees. So whose teachings was Luther spreading?