Luther: Poor Biblical Interpretation

I mean really this is just sort of Luther being a little shit again. Read on if that’s your jam. So: ah, context. We’re still going with Luther’s On the Bondage of the Will. Erasmus wrote a thing about how we have free will, and Luther’s being all like ‘nuhh fuck that‘ and is also being quite rude but also isn’t that clever. So when Erasmus is getting into his argument, he starts listing a bunch of verses that prove that the Bible says free will exists. His first quote comes from the Wisdom of Sirach, and if you’ve never heard of the Wisdom of Sirach, congratulations, you’re a Protestant. We left Sirach (also known as Ecclesiasticus (not Ecclesiastes)) out in our version.

So Erasmus is quoting Sirach 15:14-17. I’ll quote directly from the NIV though: the translation in the Erasmus text talks about how humans were ‘left in the hand of their own counsel,’ and I just don’t want there to be any ambiguity about what’s being meant by those words. In the NIV translation, then, Sirach 15:14-17 goes like this:

“When, in the beginning, the Lord created human beings, He left them free to do as they wished. If you want to, you can keep the Lord’s commands. You can decide whether you will be loyal to Him or not. He has placed fire and water before you; reach out and take whichever you want. You have a choice between life and death; you will get whichever you choose.” 

And Erasmus takes all that and says, well, it seems pretty obvious that free will does exist, because we’re all being quite explicitly and directly told that it exists. We’re told we have the ability to keep God’s commands if we want, to be loyal if we want, so on, so forth. It sounds like we have the ability to choose between salvation and not-salvation according to what we want – that is, according to our free will. And Erasmus even pulls back on that position a little, suggesting that our free will is only made free through the grace of God, who restores us through Christ after our fall into sin. So it’s not that we can just up and choose to be saved: God does all the heavy lifting, and then our will, “with the help of divine grace (which always accompanies human effort),” is able to focus on being good. I think that’s Erasmus’s point, anyway. It’s a little hard to gauge exactly where he’s at, because he’s trying to lay out the range of available views rather than coming down hard on one side or the other. You might also note that the PDF cuts off and switches to Luther’s text at the end of that section. It’s just extracts for a class or something that I found online – I haven’t been able to find a full version of Erasmus’s work. Either way, Erasmus seems to be existing somewhere in the realm of ‘free will exists, but it needs to be supported by divine grace in order to commit to God.’ That’s probably roughly what most Christians believe today – most of the ones I’ve met, at any rate.

Now let’s look at Luther’s response, in sections 51 and 52. He disagrees, obviously, but it’s the nature of his disagreement that’s so fascinating. He goes through verse by verse – so just as a reminder, here’s the first verse that he replies to: When, in the beginning, the Lord created human beings, He left them free to do as they wished.” Luther reads that, and accepts that humans have free will with regard to all ‘lesser’ things: “it is in these things only that man may act of his own will, as being subject unto him.” This is a little quibble about defining free will that I skated over earlier – Luther sort of accepts that free will exists generally, but argues that we are not freely able to choose salvation. We only have free will when dealing with all the quote-unquote ‘lesser things’, which as far as I can tell encompasses literally everything else on the planet. But okay, never mind, let’s stick with salvation, because that’s the interesting bit.

So Luther’s position is that predestination basically overrides and negates any concept of free will in the area of salvation. That position would seem to be at odds with verse 15 from Sirach: “If you want to, you can keep the Lord’s commands. You can decide whether you will be loyal to Him or not.” Luther’s response is that humans clearly aren’t free in that example, because they have to act according to God’s commands: “in the kingdom of God, he [the individual] is led according to the precepts of another, without his own will.”  He’s really talking past Erasmus’s point here. Erasmus is arguing that humans can choose whether or not to keep the commands, while Luther is arguing that the existence of commands means that humans have no free will because they have to follow someone else’s rules. Luther is pretty blatantly missing several important points here. First, the claim that humans must follow God’s commands is demonstrably false. Sin exists. Second, the Sirach verse clearly says that humans can decide whether or not to follow God’s rules. That decision is literally the body of free will.

So Luther’s initial set of arguments is dumb – but don’t worry, he’s got more. First, Luther says, ‘if’ is a conditional, so it doesn’t imply that something is actually possible. For instance, I can say to you that if you jump over a building, I’ll give you a high-five. That doesn’t mean you can jump over a building, it just means you’re only getting high-fives if you do. Therefore, Luther says, when God goes ‘If you follow my commands, they will preserve you,’ it doesn’t mean that you necessarily can follow those commands. The argument honestly seems kinda stupid. If we can’t follow God’s commands, why would God have this verse telling us to follow His commands?

Luther acknowledges this problem with his stupid argument at the start of Section 52, arguing that God is telling us to follow His commands to prove that we can’t: “God tries us, that by His law He might bring us to a knowledge of our impotency.” I mean, okay. It seems like a really obtuse way to read something that should otherwise be a very straightforward verse. Consider the other two verses that immediately follow on: “He has placed fired and water before you; reach out and take whichever you want. You have a choice between life and death; you will get whichever you choose.” According to Luther, the point of saying ‘you will get whichever you choose’ is to demonstrate that actually you can’t choose, ha! God tricked you, you fucking idiot! Look at you, believing you could choose life or death, you impotent little weasel. Yeah, God’s made you look a proper fool now. When God says that you’ll get whatever you choose, He’s saying it because it’s not true and you can’t get whatever you choose and when you try you’ll realise you can’t because free will doesn’t exist (as proven by this verse that disproves free will by stating that it exists in a straightforward and clear way), and then you’ll realise that the verse actually meant the opposite of what it said because God was being sarcastic because free will doesn’t exist and He was just trying to goad you into using your non-existent free will by telling you in pretty straightforward and clear language that it exists, prompting you to try and use it so you’ll discover that you can’t use it because it doesn’t exist, as demonstrated by the verse that says it does exist but only ironically as God’s little power play.

All of that instead of just taking the text at face value. Wasn’t it Luther himself who said that the Bible is simple and clear in all things? But that’s not even the worst part. Luther goes on to claim that Erasmus’s straightforward and literal reading of Sirach is an invalid argument from human reason. He makes some rhetorical flourishes about how he’s going to argue against reason, “for she, by her conclusions and syllogisms, interprets and twists the Scriptures of God just which way she pleases.” That’s what really got me wound up with this little extract – first of all, Luther’s got a really contorted and weird reading of a pretty straightforward scripture, but then he goes on to argue that Erasmus is the one twisting things. Nah, fuck off Luther.

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