Luther: Free Will Doesn’t Exist

This week we’re dealing with the heart of Luther’s claim in On the Bondage of the Will. In short, Luther doesn’t think that free will exists. He’s pretty sure that predestination is a thing, and commits to the argument that free will subsequently doesn’t. If you’ve read my articles on Aquinas and predestination, you’ll know that Aquinas tries to balance free will against predestination, trying to make them interface in such a way as to maintain the integrity of both. I’m still reading through Luther’s argument on the topic, but of what I’ve seen so far, it doesn’t really address or rebut any of the points raised by Aquinas. In fact, it comes across as a bit of a wet argument.

So we’re starting from Section 9, and you can find the PDF I’m using here. Or follow along in your own version, or whatever. Section 9 is where Luther comes out and drops his major statements on free will. Luther says that “God foreknows nothing by contingency, but … foresees, purposes, and does all things according to His immutable, eternal, and infallible will. By this thunderbolt, ‘free-will’ is thrown prostrate and utterly dashed to pieces.” So no free will. Where Aquinas tries to find the balance, Luther goes ‘fuck that’ and flips the table. Free will does not exist. The thunderbolt of God’s omnipotence dashes it to pieces.

Of course, if you remember some of Aquinas, you might remember that Aquinas already dealt with these kinda issues. He spends a bunch of time establishing how God’s omnipotence might interact with concepts of free will. For instance, over here, I talked about Aquinas’s concept of the necessarily contingent. Aquinas acknowledges that God’s will is supreme and unstoppable, but suggests that God supremely and unstoppably decrees that some things will be dependent on our freely made decisions. Thus, some things are necessarily contingent. Luther reckons that’s all rubbish – he says that “all things which we do, although they may appear to us to be done mutably and contingently… are yet, in reality, done necessarily and immutably, with respect to the will of God.” Free will only seems to exist – really, even if you think you’re acting freely, you’re still acting according to God’s necessary and ultimate will.

And there is some room in Aquinas to accommodate Luther’s argument. For instance, over here, Aquinas talks about how predestination is kinda God’s mental list of who’s going to heaven, and you as an individual can’t really stop those heaven-bound people from going. So for example, God might decide that Example Ed is going to heaven. There are a bunch of different pathways by which Example Ed might make it to heaven, but one of them will inevitably work. So for instance, Plan A might be that Alan prays for Ed and then Ed becomes a Christian. If Alan fails to pray for Ed, Plan B might kick in, and Benjy might pray for Ed. And if Benjy fails to pray for Ed – so on, so forth. From that perspective, Ed will eventually be saved. There’s no question about that. We as individuals might serve as the pathway for Ed getting saved, but Ed was sweet whatever happened, so it’s not like we actually caused Ed to be saved in any meaningful way. We’re just the incidental pathway.

From that perspective, sure, Luther’s got a point. We as humans do not have the ability to hinder or change God’s plan. But I think Luther is overstating the case, at least with regard to Aquinas’s arguments. Aquinas is saying that we can use our free will to be the pathways by which people are brought to salvation. Luther is saying that being a pathway isn’t really free will, because God’s immutable and necessary will is going to determine the final outcome anyway. To some extent the disagreement here also comes down to how we define free will. Aquinas sees us as individuals in a wider systematic plan, free to act within the bounds of the system that we’ve been given. Luther seems to think that it’s all bullshit and the system determines everything and therefore we don’t have any free will.

I’ll jump ahead a bit to illustrate the point further. In Section 25, Luther writes that the human will “is, as it were, a beast between [Satan and God].” When God controls our lives, we do good things, and when Satan controls our lives, we do bad things. But we have no power in ourselves, and we cannot ourselves choose one way or the other what we’re doing. “If we be under the god of this world, without the operation and Spirit of God, we are led captives by him at his will.” We are only slaves, with no free will of our own. It’s, uh, a pretty grim view of human nature, but there you go. For Luther, we’re all shit, until God actively starts to move in our lives and changes our will so that we’re able to be good.

There’s obviously quite a difference here between the thought of Luther and Aquinas. For Aquinas, existence is good, and humans are good, and we’re inherently built to desire goodness, although sometimes we desire it badly. The problem is that our vision of goodness needs refining, so that we can more accurately see the thing that we’re trying to pursue. For Luther, there’s no free will and our desire is a beast permanently enslaved to either Satan or God. It kinda sounds like Luther just hates people, to be honest.

The other thing I noticed is that in Luther’s thought, it’s not really clear how we all became enslaved to Satan in the first place. Obviously there was the whole Adam and Eve debacle, but if Adam and Eve were attuned to God’s will in the Garden, how could they have sinned? Luther says that “when God works in us, the will, being changed and sweetly breathed on by the Spirit of God, desires and acts… from pure willingness… so that it cannot be turned another way by any thing contrary, nor be compelled or overcome even by the gates of hell.” So what happened with Adam and Eve? By what mechanism were Adam and Eve brought into slavery under Satan? Luther might resolve this point later, but as it stands currently, he’s trapped between two awful options. Option one, the Fall, Satan, demons, and evil are all part of God’s predestined plan that He intentionally developed and created on purpose and with no free-will interruptions from pesky humans or even from Satan. That is, option one, everything bad is God’s fault. Or, option two, Satan is able to defy God’s will, and there’s some sort of dualism going on, whereby God and Satan are legitimately in contest over the minds and souls of human beings. I’ll keep an eye out to see if Luther ever gets around to dealing with that problem.

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