Martin Luther on Predestination (Timothy George)
In the May issue of Credo Magazine, “Chosen by Grace,” Timothy George has contributed a powerful article called, “Let God Be God: Martin Luther on Predestination.”
First, however, a word about the author. Timothy George has been the dean of Beeson Divinity School since its inception in 1988. As founding dean, George has been instrumental in shaping its character and mission. He teaches church history and doctrine. He serves as executive editor for Christianity Today, and on the editorial advisory boards of The Harvard Theological Review, Christian History and Books & Culture. He has served on the Board of Directors of Lifeway Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention. George has written more than 20 books and regularly contributes to scholarly journals. His book Theology of the Reformers has been translated into several languages and is used as a textbook in many schools and seminaries. His most recent books are Reading Scripture with the Reformers (Intervarsity 2011) and Amazing Grace: God’s Pursuit, Our Response (Crossway 2011).
Here is the introduction to George’s article to get you started:
The problem of predestination is posed by the particularity of the Judeo-Christian tradition: the fact that God revealed himself uniquely in one people, Israel, and supremely in one man, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus as well as Paul spoke of “the elect ones” and “the chosen few.” The tension between God’s free election and genuine human response is present already in the New Testament documents. However, Augustine, in his classic struggle with Pelagius, first developed a full-blown doctrine of predestination.
Augustine vs. Pelagius
For Pelagius salvation was a reward, the result of good works freely performed by human beings. Grace was not something other than, above, and beyond nature; grace was present within nature itself. In other words, grace was simply the natural capacity, which everyone has, to do the right thing, to obey the Commandments, and thus to earn salvation. Augustine, on the other hand, saw a great gulf between nature, in its fallen state, and grace. Keenly aware of the radical impotence of his own will to choose rightly, Augustine viewed salvation as the free and surprising gift of God: “Unto thy grace and mercy do I ascribe, for thy hast dissolved my sins as it were ice.” If, however, the source of our turning to God lies not in ourselves but solely in God’s good pleasure, why is it that some respond to the gospel while others spurn it? This question drove Augustine to Paul’s discussion of election in Romans 9-11. Here he found the basis for his own “harsh” doctrine of predestination: Out of the mass of fallen humanity God chooses some for eternal life and passes over others who are thus doomed for destruction, and this decision is made irrespective of human works or merits.
The Drift of Medieval Theology
In the thousand years between Augustine and Luther, the main drift of medieval theology was devoted to watering down Augustine’s stringent predestinarianism. True, Pelagius had been condemned at the Council of Ephesus (431), and semi-Pelagianism, the view that at least the beginning of faith, one’s first turning to God, was the result of free will, was rejected by the Second Council of Orange (529). Nonetheless, most theologians tried to modify Augustine’s doctrine by qualifying the basis of predestination. Alexander of Hales appealed to the principle of divine equality: “God relates on an equal basis to all.” Others held that predestination was subordinate to foreknowledge, that is, God elects those whom he knows in advance will earn merits of their own free will. None of these theories of salvation was “purely” Pelagian, for all of them required the assistance of divine grace. Still, the crucial factor remained the human decision to respond to God rather than God’s free, unfettered decision to choose whom He wills.
Predestination: The Hinge On Which All Turns
Martin Luther’s doctrine of justification broke decisively with the Augustinian model of a progressive impartation of grace. We are justified not because God is gradually making us righteous, but because we are declared righteous on the basis of Christ’s atoning sacrifice. However, on the prior principle of sola gratia, Luther—and Zwingli and Calvin after him—stands foursquare with Augustine against the latter-day “Pelagians” who exalt human free will at the expense of God’s free grace. In this respect, the mainline Protestant Reformation can be viewed as an “acute Augustinianization of Christianity.” Some historians have regarded Luther’s doctrine of predestination as an aberration from his major themes or, at best, as a “merely auxiliary thought.” But Luther saw the matter differently. In responding to Erasmus’s attack on this doctrine, Luther praised the humanist for not bothering him with extraneous issues such as the papacy, purgatory, or indulgences. “You alone,” he said, “have attacked the real thing, that is, the essential issue…. You alone have seen the hinge on which all turns, and aimed for the vital spot.”
One of Luther’s complaints against the “pig-theologians” was their thesis that the human will of its own volition could actually love God above all things, or, that by doing one’s best even apart from grace one could earn a certain standing before God. To this optimistic apprisal of human potential Luther opposed a stark contrast between nature and grace. “Grace puts God in the place of everything else it sees, and prefers him to itself, but nature puts itself in the place of everything, and even in the place of God, and seeks only its own and not what is God’s.” By “nature” Luther did not mean simply the created realm, but rather the fallen, created realm, and particularly the fallen human will which is “curved in on itself ” (incurvatus in se), “enslaved,” and tainted with evil in all of its actions. At the Heidelberg Disputation in 1518, Luther defended the thesis: “Free will after the Fall exists only in name, and as long as one ‘does what in one lies,’ one is committing mortal sin.” This formulation was included in the bull Exsurge Domine by which Pope Leo X excommunicated Luther in 1520.
The “Devil’s Whore”
Was Luther, then, a thoroughgoing determinist? Erasmus and certain modern scholars have thought so. Luther did come perilously close to necessitarian language. Yet he never denied that free will retains its power in matters which do not concern salvation. Thus Luther said to Erasmus: “You are no doubt right in assigning to man a will of some sort, but to credit him with a will that is free in the things of God is too much.” Luther freely granted that even the enslaved will is “not a nothing,” that with respect to those things which are “inferior” to it, the will retains its full powers. It is only with respect to that which is “superior” to it that the will is held captive in sins and cannot choose the good according to God. Here we find a parallel to Luther’s disdain of reason. In its legitimate sphere reason is the highest gift of God, but the moment it transgresses into theology it becomes the “Devil’s Whore.” So too with free will. Understood as the God-given capacity to make ordinary decisions, to carry out one’s responsibilities in the world, free will remains intact. What it cannot do is effect its own salvation. On this score free will is totally vitiated by sin and in bondage to Satan.
Luther described the nature of this bondage in terms of a struggle between God and Satan:
“So the will is like a beast standing between two riders. If God rides, it wills and goes where God wills…. If Satan rides, it wills and goes where Satan wills; nor can it choose to run to either of the two riders or to seek him out, but the riders themselves contend for the possession and control of it.”
Although some scholars have found a nuance of Manichaean dualism in this metaphor, Luther was merely developing an image originally drawn by Jesus: “Every one who commits sin is a slave of sin” and “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires” (John 8:34, 44,RSV). There is a further point Luther developed with regard to the enslaved will. Although our eternal destiny is, in a sense, determined by God, we are not therefore compelled to sin. We sin spontaneously and voluntarily. We go on willing and desiring to do evil in spite of the fact that in our own strength we can do nothing to alter this condition. Herein is the tragedy of human existence apart from grace: We are so curved in upon ourselves that, thinking ourselves free, we indulge in those very things which only reinforce our bondage.
Read the rest of George’s article today!
Chosen by Grace
The biblical doctrine of election is offensive. It collides with our demand for human autonomy. It removes our will from the throne. And it exposes our nakedness, revealing us to be the sinners that we truly are, undeserving of divine grace and mercy. But when our eyes are opened to its glory, we begin to see that the doctrine of election leads us to worship, praise, and give thanks to our Sovereign Lord. We recognize that we, as sinners, deserve nothing less than eternal condemnation. And yet, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has chosen us in Christ before the foundation of the world! In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, not on the basis of anything we have done, but purely according to the purpose of his will (Eph 1:3-5). It is this doctrine of election that Paul says is to lead us to praise the glorious grace of God (Eph 1:6). Therefore, the title of this May’s issue of Credo Magazine is “Chosen by Grace.” Contributors include: Timothy George, Paul Helm, Matthew Barrett, Bruce Ware, Fred Zaspel, Greg Gilbert, Thomas Nettles, R. Scott Clark, David Murray, Thomas Schreiner, Graham Cole, Greg Forster, and many others.