A Review on Dr. Martin Luther’s ” Bondage of the Will”

Dr. Martin Luther’s ” The Bondage of the Will,” or ” De Servo Arbitrio,” as it was originally entitled, was written as a rebuke. As a result of increasing pressure from the papacy to condemn Luther’s writing, Erasmus wrote a book called ” The Freedom of the Will,” or ” De Libero Arbitrio,” to affirm his obedience to papal authority and to attack the Reformation that Luther launched in 1517 with his posting of the Ninety- Five Thesis at the Castle Church and his affirmation of his writings at the 1521 Diet of Worms.  Erasmus, a man of the Northern Renaissance, was a humanist who actually championed the same sorts of ecclesiastical reforms that Luther, Zwingli, the Anabaptists and others all over Europe were then currently militating for. The difference was that Erasmus wanted to move at a more conservative pace and within the boundaries placed by the Roman Curia, while Luther and the others found themselves quickly outside the pale and threatened with death.   Erasmus managed to throw Luther into a perfect fury with his publications and ( as he was wont to do when he was angry) Luther wrote a perfectly brilliant piece of theological literature after his own friends pressed him into composing a reply. Luther wrote an article by article response to the humanist’s  piece which wound up informing Lutheran theology in general.   God and His Foreknowledge   Luther tells us that God reveals Himself to us in His Word, both as Jesus Christ and in the Holy Scriptures. What we are to know about the Almighty is made manifest in those two sources. There is also an inexpressible, unknown aspect to the Divine Will that we are not to investigate or to probe. Some things ( despite Erasmus’ furious words to the contrary) are forever blocked to the natural reason of Man. Reason itself is limited because without the grace of God, it is confined to human experience, tainted as that experience is by Original Sin.   God in His foreknowledge has determined the salvation of those Christians who are to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. The only predestination is that to salvation, while Man’s un- regenerated will, bound by sin, would have those not graced by the Holy Spirit to choose the agonies of Hell for themselves. Luther is quite adamant that all we can or need to know is contained in the Bible, which itself is quite clear in reading and interpretation, despite Erasmus’ obsessions with tropes, articles, metaphors, allegories and so on which tend to darken the plain meaning of Scripture for him. Erasmus, like many Renaissance folk of that era, tried to fuse Biblical theology with ancient Greek and Roman philosophy and so tended to go a bit beyond what the Apostles and early Church Fathers might have intended for the Christian Church. Luther debated Erasmus on the efficacy of accrued Tradition       Erasmus was very adamant about Scriptural interpretation being hallowed by time, the decrees of the Church and those saints and martyrs whos miracles were dutifully recited and whose relics were avidly sought after in Medieval Europe. Luther was just as dismissive of those things, saying that the only relic that can do Christians any good is the Bible and that the accretions of man- made traditions in the Christian Church had only served to distract people from faith and drove people to distraction trying to earn for themselves what Christ had already won for them on Calvary, namely, their justification. If Traditions and human works were effective for salvation, Luther wondered, then why did Jesus Christ have to come to earth at all? Why was the Holy Spirit given to the Apostles if tradition and doing good things were all one needed? Where is the Church?     Erasmus once said in what Luther terms his ” Diatribe” that if the See of Peter and all of his servants didn’t have the Gospel, then where had it ( and therefore the Church) been for the last 1,500 years? Luther responded that the Church was yet with the believers under the Papal See, the believers under the See of Constantinople and believers even among the Arians. It wasn’t the will of Man who made Christians, but the Will of God, Who makes that Will known to us in His Word. Man’s will is bound tightly by the unbreakable irons of sin, irons that had been forged in the fires of Hell. God’s grace is delivered to people in the proclamation of the Word and the reception of the sacraments ( Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution and the Holy Eucharist). Man can not ” reason” or ” work” his way to Heaven, otherwise the atonement offered by Christ would be void. It can only be received as a gift. Once received, the Old Adam in Man begins to die and the New Adam ( Jesus Christ) begins to arise. Luther had a few pointed things to say about Erasmus, his character, his quick wit in writing about reform and his sluggishness in seeing it carried out. Luther also complained of the many contradictions that this ” Catholic Reformer” presented in his ” The Freedom of the Will,” which made much of God’s grace working in Man and also much about man’s ability to choose that grace ( or to reject it. As if somebody’s going to approach God and ask Him to throw him into Hell). How can grace be grace if it’s somehow earned? Luther also went into Man’s penchant not only to be unable to please God by his own powers, but how the natural Man actively uses those powers in rebellion against God.   Conclusion This is the basic message of ” The Bondage of the Will.” Apart from God’s revealed Will given to us in the Bible and through that Will being declared and the sacraments of those Scriptures administered, Man’s will can only be a one- way ticket to Hell. Reason can do many things that pertain to this life, but our way to god has been revealed to us. I’d have to say that the Reformers, from John Wycliffe to John Huss to Martin Luther, did provide what I consider a miracle: a written translation of Holy Writ from Latin to the every day language of the common man and in doing that, also in promoting literacy and learning in the Protestant churches, the Reformation was a necessary step in the evolution first of Europe and then of the rest of the world. Afterward Today, we see cultural norms and Christian orthodoxy under attack everywhere in the secular world as well as in the lands of the heathen. Like Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin and other Reformers, we too must stand up in defense of our faith. Erasmus wanted to compromise, to live in comfort and to enjoy the fruits of his learned reputation, as did Thomas More and others who half- heartedly pressed for reform in the face of clerical abuses. They quickly found themselves on the wrong side of history and Thomas More was executed as a traitor for it. Today, the temptation to succumb to the creature comforts of the world is just as overpowering today as it has ever been, but Jesus did not call us to comfort. We must contend for the faith, not to prove anything or to win anything, but to hold on to what we have been given. God has given us His Spirit and He has in Holy Scripture revealed His will to us. We have churches in which Christians gather for fellowship and mutual affirmation. Jesus Christ really is the One Way to the Father and only when we are given the grace we need to submit our wills to His Will, can we truly live according to the Law and Gospel that we have been given. Faith indeed is a living, active and mighty thing, but it must needs be fed. It’s fed by Word and Sacrament and daily devotion helps it to grow. The Devil, the Fallen World and our own sinful Flesh all militate together against this God- given Faith, but this Faith grows in us as our old Adam and his priorities die within us and Jesus is resurrected in us. Where One member of the Holy Trinity is, so also there are all Three, so the indwelling Spirit is present in the believer’s heart together with God the Father and Jesus, God the Son. All because of what Jesus did for us nailed to a Roman Cross those centuries ago in Jerusalem.