Friday, June 02, 2006

Ramblings on Free Will

Martin Luther is said to have looked back at his body of work late in his life and decided that his Bondage of the Will was one of the few things (along with the catechisms) he wrote that was worth preserving. Calvinists like to point this out. Lutherans have to live with it.

It's true that lack of free will is a cornerstone of Lutheran theology. How many times is Luther's explanation of the third article of the Creed quoted? "I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him..." This is a cornerstone of our theology. It's also a bit of an embarassment.

When I was in college a friend and I used to get together in various bars and talk about philosophy. It became a joke between us that no matter what topic we talked about it always came down to the question of free will. At the time, I was an unapologetic defender of free will -- completely free will to the point of making every human decision practically arbitrary. My friend, a dyed-in-the-wool post-modernist, found my position absurd (which of course it was).

Later I became a dogmatic Lutheran (really...I was). I took it as a given in theological matters that the human will is absolutely bound in matters related to salvation. This is where I now think it's a bit weird. The official Lutheran position has always been that our wills are free with regard to "things below" but that they are bound with regard to "things above" -- that I can make whatever choices I like with regard to civil righteousness, but that I cannot, apart from the Holy Spirit, come to God.

American culture will not tolerate any impingement on free will. We are, says the culture, masters of our destiny. And in the realm of religion this translates into theologies that Lutherans cannot tolerate because they are synergistic and semi-Pelagian. And most of these theologies are, in fact, objectively bad -- but not necessarily because they are synergistic.

Apart from being at odds with American cultural religion because of its position on free will, Lutheran theology is also at odds with the ancient faiths of Catholicism and Orthodoxy on these matters. Orthodoxy especially stresses cooperation with God in salvation. But Lutherans hear "cooperation with God," label it as "synergistic" and treat it as heresy.

I think this is a weakness in Lutheran culture.

I was leading a study of the Augsburg Confession once and one of the participants mentioned an idea he had heard once that the Sacrament of Communion is for Lutherans something like what altar calls are for Baptists. I liked that. A retired pastor who was in the class said that Luther wouldn't have liked that. "Why not?" I asked. He responded, "I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him...."

But that elipsis has content, right? It says, "but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith." We confess that we don't have the freedom to come to God on our own power, but when would we ever have to do it by our own power?

Typical Lutheran presentations make the believer (or believer-to-be) into a marionette. God pulls the strings, and we dance. We take the saying, "Apart from me you can do nothing" and make it into "You can do nothing."

The Orthodox believe that they have found the middle way between Augustine and Pelagius. Pointing to the writings of St. John Cassian, for example, the Orthodox teach that God works in and through our will to accomplish our salvation. This was judged in the West to be semi-Pelagianism.

But it's only semi-Pelagianism if you make a sharp division between the human will and the work of God and set them against one another. It seems to me that this involves a false view of the nature of God's presence in the world. If the work of God is seen as super-natural in the modernist sense of some outside action acting on nature, then you have this problem. But if you see God's work as the manifestation of God's immanent presence within the world ("in me deeper than I am in myself" as Augustine says), then the problem goes away.

It's common to here Arminians say something to the effect that God is a perfect gentleman and would never impose salvation on us against our will. That idea has always struck me as deeply flawed -- God is God and so on. But the real issue is that God doesn't need to do anything against our will, because our will is capable of being a vehicle for God's presence in our lives. And I think this is the essence of the Orthodox doctrine of synergism.


Patrik said...

Even though I live in the most Lutheran country in the world I'm no expert on Luther and his theology, but I have read The bondage of the will and it is a strange book.

I have always felt that this is Luther big error: He tries to develop his theology, or rather, his anthropology from God's perspective. Thus he ends up with this concept that we cannot do anything for our salvation. This is problematical for two reasons, firstly because even Luther believes we cannot know God in his substance, and secondly because this completely contradicts our experience.

I think Luther's statement can be considered correct if one remmebers that this is a statement based on revelation of how God looks at us. It has to be combined with a theology "from below", from our point of view, and this is the way the fathers made theology, and this is the core of the Lutheran-ortodox conflict: it is a difference of perspective.

Inheritor of Heaven said...

I wonder if we Lutherans forget about the big "buts".
As you stated one of them "but that the Holy Spirit has called me..." also you state "apart from me you can do nothing" I would add BUT "with God all things are possible." I believe that our will is always turned inward towards ourselves until God reveals himself and his salvation in Christ to us. It is at that point that we can cooperate by acceptance or we can reject the gift and giver. If we could find God on our own and come to him on our own, what need would there be of Christ? From the beginning and all through scripture it is God who acts/initiates/reveals/heals/delivers/saves etc. It is we who are created/renewed/born again/healed/delivered etc. In all of that we can reject the gift. The interesting question to me is, Jesus died for all. He paid the penalty for all sin. Salvation has been won for all. Yet some are not saved. Is this entirely due to rejection? Are some not saved because they have not heard the word of Christ and so have not faith? Is our acceptance considered synergistic or a "free will choice" or a gift of grace?

CPA said...

"Bondage of the Will" is stil one of my favorite books, so I have a different perspective from Patrik, needless to say. I would say the most important think to keep in mind in Bondage of the Will is that it is essentially a writing about theodicy. And the key distinction is the idea of God as He is in himself and God incarnate. God as He is in himself is a God of double-predestination, but God incarnate as the babe of Bethlehem desires and wills the salvation of all.

His beef with Erasmus (and the whole school of "It's really important to make sure God's off the hook for evil in the world") is that by attempting to solve the theodicy issue apart from the incarnation they end up placing salvation in ourselves, where it ought not to be.

Tom in Ontario said...

As Lutherans we believe that God is graciously offering Christ by the Spirit to everyone who hears the Gospel (Hearing the Gospel is an event of salvation!). Some of us, unfortunately, decide to let our free will kick in and we reject the Good News. We make a free choice and decide that we can just as well save ourselves, that we can do what is required for salvation. Even if what is required is as little as "choose Jesus," it is still a rejection of the Gospel. Thus, the argument for free will is not an argument in defense of the Gospel, it is a direct attack on the Gospel.

The problem is in assuming that, after the fall, we really have a totally free will. Even apart from a theology of the will, how free are we? Did you choose your own parents? Did you choose when or where to be born? Did you design your own genetic makeup? Given how significant these are to our lives, free will as a concept seems to be rather superficial. Its function is to make us good capitalists and consumers and it enables us to blame the poor for their condition rather than see the flaws in the economic system.

Luther's theology of will is that we have limited areas in which we can make choices. We can choose, for example, to be good citizens or good workers or good parents. What we cannot do is choose to save ourselves. "I am in bondage to sin and cannot save myself," as we say in the confession of sins. The will, left to its own devices, always turns in on itself and chooses works rather than grace through faith. As we get further and further into ourselves we end up either in despair or self-righteousness.

Andy said...


You've made a very good point with regard to Luther viewing the free will question from God's point-of-view. In almost all of his theology, he is very careful not to do that, but in this one case, it does seem to have slipped in -- at least to the extent that we are dogmatic about the lack of free will. It's perfectly legitimate "from below" for me to recognize that God led me to salvation at every step, but taking that extra step and saying I had no free will would seem to cross the line.


You say, "Yet some are not saved." Are you sure? It does raise an interesting question. We say that we can assert our free will and reject God's salvation or we can let God be God and be saved. But from a theological point of view, what would it mean to recognize that God is God in both cases? We either have Calvinism with its double-predestination or something else.

Question for discussion: Is Jesus' claim in John 12:32 ("And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all to myself.") relevant to this discussion?


I hadn't considered Bondage of the Will from the perspective of theodicy. Maybe I need to read it again.
You say, "God as He is in himself and God incarnate. God as He is in himself is a God of double-predestination...." I would take issue with that. I would say instead that God as He is in himself is we know not what, and I take Luther to be saying (not in Bondage but generally) that we shouldn't ask or wonder what. But, of course, God as He is revealed in Christ is what is the critical thing for us to see.


You talk about letting our free will kick in and rejecting grace. This is a specific point where I have problems with the standard Lutheran rhetoric. Why should we say rejecting grace is an act of our will but accepting grace is not? The problem here is, I think, largely one of terminology and not necessarily of theology, and I think this is where we have problems with the Orthodox formulation, which sees both choices as acts of will (either cooperating with God or resisting).

I remember Gerhard Forde in Where God Meets Man having a really good presentation of the issue that boiled down to letting God be God and exposed the very real problems that arise from attributing any part of salvation to humans, and it went very much along the lines that you laid out here, but I don't think it followed the standard terminology of free will. I'll have to look that up again.

Inheritor of Heaven said...

I suppose a question might be, what does "draw all men unto myself" mean? especially in terms of salvation.

I am thinking of passages in Luke 13: "Then Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him, "Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?"
He said to them, "Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, 'Sir, open the door for us.'
"But he will answer, 'I don't know you or where you come from.' Away from me, all you evildoers!" and later "...when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out." These are related to salvation and to those who will not be saved.

Andy said...

I suppose a question might be, what does "draw all men unto myself" mean? especially in terms of salvation.

That's definitely the question. Perhaps we could use an analogy with falling down a hill, whereby you could by your own effort attempt to keep from falling, but if you do nothing you will fall. Of course, you can by your own effort cooperate with gravity in falling down the hill. Is that part of the flaw of the analogy or is it useful?

One useful illustration of the traditional Lutheran position I've heard is that having the ability to drown doesn't imply having the ability to swim. But, to offer my spin on that analogy, you can cooperate with a lifeguard to some extent even if you do so by choosing not to struggle.

Tom in Ontario said...

The problem, I think, is that our will is perverted by sin. If selfishness is behind sin then, as I wrote, we'll decide that we can save ourselves. That selfishness, or perhaps self-reliance, is what insists on a free will that can choose to "cooperate" with God even if it's only to the extent of "choosing Jesus" or "saying yes/accepting the gift of God's grace.

But that turns the gospel into not-gospel. If "by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him" then the good news is that the Holy Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens, makes holy, and sends me and the whole Christian church on earth and keeps us with Jesus Christ in the one common, true faith. And that without one smidge of help from me.

I maintain that an argument for free will, especially if it implies cooperation in our salvation, is an argument against the Gospel.

Andy said...

Sure, our will is perverted by sin.

I'm mainly arguing for a different perspective. When the Holy Spirit calls me to faith, and I act in accordance with the will of God, where's my will? Is it totally uninvolved? Dogmatically, it is. But experientially, it's not. In order to maintain the dogmatic stance that God did everything, I have to say that my own experience of what actually happened was meaningless.

CPA said...

My opinion, that in Bondage of the Will, Luther is fundamentally concerned with theodicy, and hardly at all with "free will" as a philosophical position does seem to be a minority one.

Your write:
"I would say instead that God as He is in himself is we know not what, and I take Luther to be saying (not in Bondage but generally) that we shouldn't ask or wonder what."

In a sense your right. Sometimes I really wish Luther in BotW would say exactly that. But in point of fact he doesn't -- he does say very clearly that God in Himself is absolutely sovereign and determines who is saved and who damned entirely of His own pleasure. One could argue that on his own premises he shouldn't say that (and would have at least an arguable point), but the fact is he does.

I've got a florilegium of BotW theodicy passages in the can, maybe I'll put them out. (Comparing BotW with his early commentary on Romans is very revealing).

CPA said...

"When the Holy Spirit calls me to faith, and I act in accordance with the will of God, where's my will? Is it totally uninvolved? Dogmatically, it is."

I don't think that's correct. Dogmatically (I take it by that you mean the Formula of Concord) specifically rejects the idea that God converts the unwilling.

Inheritor of Heaven said...

"you can cooperate with a lifeguard to some extent even if you do so by choosing not to struggle."

You can't cooperate with the lifeguard to any extent if you are dead. Until Jesus' work done for us, we were dead. After the dead swimmer is revived through the effort of the lifeguard the swimmer/drowner certainly has the free will to jump back in and drown themselves again or they now have the free will to follow the lifeguard while thanking him profusely.

Andy said...

When I said that domatically my will is uninvolved, I didn't have a particular document in mind. I was mostly shooting from the hip based on my general impression of Lutheran dogma. So after your comment, cpa, I went back and read some of the FC.

I have a strained relationship with the Lutheran Confessions. Whenever I go to consult them on someting like this, they tend to have in them the ideas that I'd like to find there, but the ideas are kept just out of reach by the terms of the formulation.

For instance, FC-Ep II, Para. 15 says "for, as Augustine says, in conversion God makes willing persons out of the unwilling and dwells in the willing."

Now this is what I'm after. God doesn't just convert, God makes willing persons. This is in the list of rejected errors, but if I've understood it right, this statement is made positively as the corrective to the error being rejected. So God doesn't give the Holy Spirit to "those who resist Him intentionally and persistently" but rather He makes them willing. Willing!

But then in clarification in the next paragraph the Formula rejects the use of sayings such as "God draws, but He draws the willing" and "In conversion the will of man is not idle, but also effects something."

I don't think this is truly targeted at what I'm saying, but it presents an obstacle. If I understand this correctly, the intention is the guard against the idea that man's will is a creative agent in the salvation process, and that's not what I'm saying nor is it what the Orthodox are saying in their view of this. But I am saying man's will is an active agent in the process. That is, through God's grace, my will is put to work for God's purposes.

Finally (para. 17), the Epitome does acknowledge that after conversion we are left with a will that is not idle but cooperates with God.

So the difficulty is that for the Formula of Concord conversion seems to be a point event such that they can talk about the will before conversion resisting God and the will after conversion cooperating with God and say nothing at all about the will during conversion. On the other hand, in Orthodox theology (and it has been argued for Luther) conversion is a process, not a point event, and so the question of the disposition of the will during conversion become relevant.

Tom in Ontario said...

I'd agree that conversion is a process, even a life long process. In that process we are simul iustus et peccator. Perhaps then the justified saint in me has a converted will that can, by the Spirit, say yes to God. At the same time the sinner in me continues to be in bondage to sin, unable to free myself and that perverted will would rather reject God's grace. But during this life long process the Spirit through the Word and the Sacraments and the Christian community continues to work faith in me because by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him.

I'll continue hammering on that if my will or my choice or my anything has anything to do with my salvation then it's no longer grace, it's no longer gospel.

Weekend Fisher said...

My biggest problem with the entire discussion of free will v. determinism in salvation is that it misses the cross of Christ in a huge way. Forde, in Where God Meets Man, understood this, not to say he did a perfect job with it but he does give recognition to the fact that it's only in the cross that we are free, and therefore to speak of our freedom apart from the cross is a category mistake, a theoretical abstract with no reality behind the name. The whole will/nature argument, when not continually conscious that freedom is found only in Christ, quickly approaches the meaningless.