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Molinism and Varieties of Freedom IV: Lutheran Perspectives

26 August 2011

Lutheranism occupies a somewhat unique position amongst the churches and traditions born of the Reformation era.[1] The tradition didn’t really catch on in mainland continental Europe, with the exception of what is today north-eastern Germany (and was once Prussia), and its heartland quickly migrated north into Scandinavia and thence into the rest of the Nordic countries. That relative isolation and state-enforced absolute dominance insulated Lutheranism somewhat from the theological debates that marked western Europe, which truly became intra-Reformed, intra-Catholic, or Reformed-Catholic, with Lutheranism left largely out in the cold (no pun intended). Lutherans did, of course, have their own theological debates, with Christology becoming a particularly hot topic in the post-Reformation era, and the internal debates of the Lutheran Scholastics over the communicatio idiomatum, the relation of divine and human properties in the person of Christ, will warrant more than a few posts in the future. However the particular debate, which began in Catholic circles as De auxilliis between Jesuits and Dominicans and migrated into Reformed circles through Jacobus Arminius, being discussed herein was not picked-up on by contemporary Lutheran theologians. However Luther and his successors had some interesting and important things to say on the topic of divine power and foreknowledge and their relation to creaturely free will.

Luther himself addressed the topic of creaturely free will in De servo arbitrio (literally On the enslaved will but best known in English as On the Bondage of the Will), which he regarded as one of his best works. Luther’s general thesis, necessarily simplified, is that whatever ‘free will’ humans possess is bound wholly and irretrievably to sin.[2] Luther thus regards the question of whether human will is free or precisely how free it is as essentially moot. The actual issue at hand for Luther is soteriology: he was writing about human salvation and how it is brought about. All other considerations were secondary at best. Luther’s position rather closely mirrors that of Augustine, of whose theology generally he thought very highly.[3]

Luther’s central argument was that salvation comes about for human beings when God infuses us with his grace. This could come about only through faith on our part but, crucially, faith itself is a gift of divine grace. This point is frequently overlooked but critical to really understand Luther on the issue. Salvation comes about through faith which comes about through grace. Specifically faith comes about through the means of grace: the Gospel and the Sacraments.[4] The implication of this detail (at least the implication relevant for the present discussion) is that the human will is bound completely to sin until divine grace intervenes and turns it toward God and thus not only salvation but also good works (not the saving kind). Luther actually describes the resultant movements of the human will as God acting through the person, rather than as the person acting by virtue of divine grace, stating in no uncertain terms that the human will is fallen and unable to do good (faith being understand as a good to be done) except when God does good through us.

Molina was not addressing Luther’s unique theology of human will in the Concordia and Luther’s ideas are quite distinct not only from the Thomistic predestinarianism to which Molina work was addressed but also from the theology which Molina developed. In order to fully grasp the relation between the two it is necessary to elucidate two technical terms, monergism and synergism, which describe two different models of human activity in human salvation. In monergism salvation comes about only through divine power or activity whereas in synergism activity is also necessary. Though the distinction sounds clear cut the actual dividing line between the two is a matter of debate and whether a particular soteriology is monergistic or synergistic is not always apparent. An unambiguous example of monergism is Calvinist double predestination: God, before the act of creation, determined which human beings he would save through his grace and which he could condemn to hell and these humans have absolutely no control or agency over the matter. For synergism the best unambiguous example is Pelagianism: salvation comes about through divine grace, certainly, but that grace takes the shape of the moral guidance of scripture and human beings must through their own (extensive) effort strive to achieve the level of right action that will merit salvation.[5] The murkiness enter the equation at the point where the necessary human activity (characteristic of synergism) is only possible through divine grace (characteristic of monergism). When Molina’s category of scientia media is applied to soteriology (either by Molina himself or by one of his successors like Suárez or Arminius) the result inevitably falls into this grey zone.

Luther’s own thought, properly understood, is a species of monergism, a point upon which Luther himself thoroughly insisted: while human faith is a necessary component in Luther’s model of salvation that faith is entirely dependent upon grace and possible only by God acting through the human being. Divine activity is at play and humans are fundamentally passive in the receiving of and acting out of grace. Luther was not concerned with human freedom but because freedom is paramount in the Molinist paradigm Molinistic soteriologies generally maintain a degree of free choice not characteristic of monergism but which does not place them squarely in the synergism camp. Humans are generally conceived of as having the option not to be saved by turning away from God’s grace: we are powerless to be saved without God’s grace but we are not powerless not to be saved, God will always respect our freedom and allow us to turn away from him. To maintain God’s justice this grace can be conceived of as being universally offered.[6]

The real incompatibility of Molinism and Lutheran soteriology likes not in their understandings of human or creaturely free will, nor their approaches to divine foreknowledge but in their emphases and intents. Certainly it is not impossible that in his scientia media God knows who would, if given the opportunity, choose to turn away from his grace and reject salvation and thus he elects not to act to save those persons. This sort of roundabout model has the advantage of preserving Molinism’s strong theodicy since it remains the choice of the human being to turn away from grace, logically if not actually. However the whole point of Luther’s soteriological paradigm is that salvation is not about us but about God. Humans are bound inescapably to sin and are passive in salvation; what we do or would choose is not at issue so much as God’s loving generosity in freeing us from the grip of sin through grace. That said it would not be incoherent to hold to a Molinstic view of divine foreknowledge and a Lutheran view of salvation since the two are truly about different issues and the incompatibility is not insuperable.

The next installment of “Molinism and Varities of Freedom” will examine Calvinist theologies of creaturely will and divine foreknowledge/power and their compatibility with Molinism with particular emphases on Calvin’s own thought as well as the later Arminian-Supralapsarian debate.

Nota bene: The ideas of Martin Luther have been somewhat simplified over the course of this post in the interests of brevity and certain nuances not central to the discussion at hand have been glossed over. To really engage Luther’s ideas on their own terms you will just have to read him. It’s well worth it (except for that part about Pharaoh and God’s longsuffering, that was pretty dull).

Notes and Bibliography

[1] Those being the Lutheran, Reformed or Calvinist (including Presbyterian),  Anabaptist, Anglican, and (though not in an institutional sense) post-Tridentine Roman Catholic traditions. Other Protestant traditions like Methodist and Baptist churches date from post-Reformations periods.

[2] Luther deals explicitly and exclusively with human will in De servo arbitrio and, unlike that of certain other authors addressed in this series, his thought cannot be extended or analogised to non-human creatures because of the hamartiological concerns that are central to it.

[3] See here for a discussion of Luther’s appropriation and application of Augustinian theology.

[4] The failure to grasp the critical detail that in Luther’s model faith can come about only through grace that itself comes through finite means of grace is likely why many fail to grasp the difference between Luther’s sola fide and the later theology of prevenient grace.

[5] Kenneth Melchin, the noted Lonergan scholar under whom it has been my good fortune to study, likes to describe this approach as “spiritual calisthenics.”

[6] This idea has interesting soteriological implications when one considers that for saving grace to be truly universally offered it would have to be available to those who are un-evangelised in this life.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. oldhickory68 permalink
    29 March 2012 8:07 pm

    Thank you for an informative article. I’m currently preparing to begin an MDiv program at Concordia Seminar this summer. I’ve been in the Lutheran tradition now for almost two years and was drawn to Luther when I first became a Christian because of his battle with melancholy/depression.

    I also have a lay interest in apologetics and enjoy listening to Dr. William Lane Craig whom I know to be a Molinist, but I don’t agree with the position, obviously. My difficulty with Molinism is the scenario depicted before the creation of the heavens and the earth. A great deal of this viewpoint seems to rest upon having to imagine God’s “imagining” the different sorts of worlds He could create.

    I think it too speculative and too athropomorphic a veiwpoint. It seems a projection of our own finite experiences with “options” and “choices” only increased to a much larger scale, along the same lines as thinking God must be unimaginably “large” given the smallness of our own existence and the vastness of the cosmos. But I think it’s a mistake to speculate that God has options in a sense that is similar to our own. He’s not a contingent being bound by an infinitude of possibilities from which He must choose. Who is to say God had an infinite amount of all feasible/possible worlds before He created this one? That can never be demonstrated and I think, goes beyond His revealed Word. Far beyond it.

    We simply do not know what or how God thought prior to creating the heavens and the earth.

    Choices for man are generally in reference to things external to his own existence – we find ourselves confronted with a veritable array of options every day, but they are, by and large, external to us and our choices are in one way or another, “reactions” to those external realities based the “will”; what to eat, what to wear, what book to read, etc. God, I have good reason to believe, doesn’t quite think like we do in this capacity. Man, never having perfect foreknowledge of the moral choices and behavior of contingent beings, can only imagine what it must be like.

    The Prophet Isaiah tells us –

    “For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
    Nor are your ways My ways,” says the Lord.
    “For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    So are My ways higher than your ways,
    And My thoughts than your thoughts.”

    Dr. Craig sees there to be no agency behind human volition when it comes to a person choosing or rejecting God. But such a position fails to account for what would cause a person to reject God in the first place. Isn’t that our sinful nature? If it is sin which causes us to reject God, then how can it be said we are really “free” in the Molinist sense, since there appears to be a prior agent/causality acting upon and influencing my decisions in a rather dire manner? And since the third chapter of Romans declares that no one seeks God, how can the Molinist position defend true libertarian freedom of moral agents apart from Christ (prior to people choosing Christ, that is) where sin is involved?

    Craig’s Molinism (I do not know if it is representative of Molinism in general) seems to suggest “nothing” is acting upon man’s will, and that this absence of any prior causality or agency influencing man’s volition is what makes for libertarian freedom, if I’ve understood him correctly. I probably haven’t. I’m no philosopher. Craig suggests attributing prior agency as acting upon/influencing human volition creates an infinite regression of agencies acting on agencies.

    But I think that’s false objection. There is a “first cause” of human volition, either sin or God’s efficacious work of grace as I would see it. Perhaps there’s a distinction between “motivation” and “agency” in our choosing, but I think if one would say “I was motivated by this or that” is that not the same as a prior agent acting upon the will to influence it? What’s the difference?

    Thanks for a good article. Perhaps you might have time to respond.

    • Matthew SG permalink*
      30 March 2012 9:02 am

      Thanks for you thoughts, oldhickory. There are a couple of particular points to which I would like to respond as they struck me as particularly interesting when considering the relation of Molinism and Lutheranism.

      The first point is your objection to Craig’s Molinism on the grounds that the categorisation of types of divine foreknowledge anthropomorphises God. I would mention, as a tangentially relevant historical point, that while Luther does explicitly address the question of types of divine foreknowledge his thought on question of human free will is consistent with the classical Thomistic delineations of scientia naturalis and scientia liberalis. This is particularly clear in his discussion of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in De servo arbitrio. Bearing in mind that Luther was very much an Occamite, and thus both a nominalist and, critically (for this discussion) a voluntarist, meaning that he strongly emphasised God’s will, which operates within the scientia liberalis (that is, the knowledge which follows from his [God’s] wholly free acts of and within creation), Luther’s discussion of God’s actions toward Pharaoh strongly reject the tradition, dichotomous model of divine foreknowledge. Addressing your point more directly I would contend that imputing different types of knowledge to God does not anthropomorphise or claim knowledge of God’s actual thought prior to the act of creation. Rather this distinction within the content of God’s knowledge is means of understanding how God relates to us. Molina and Craig are not claiming some direct sort of knowledge of the inner movement of the divine intellect but logically inferring about the ways in which God would know things about creation based upon the logical implicates of certain anthropological and theological first principles. If, as Molinism holds, God possesses perfect foreknowledge and humans are perfectly free (these are assumptions of Molinism) then logically God must knowledge of true counter-factuals logically prior to the act of creation because if God’s knowledge was only of the single course creation would take once created (that is, no knowledge of true counter-factuals) creation would be bound to this course and there would be no free will.

      The second point that struck me is whether we are truly free under the influence of sin and the question you raise about the relation of agency and motivation. Within Molinism it is understood that motivation does not override agency. This may be a point of fairly fundamental disagreement between Molinism and Lutheranism (excluding the possibility of the round-about mode of agreement with which I closed my post). Craig’s particular formulation of this point is where I, too, find myself in disagreement with him. He seems to me to here to overly influenced by Kant’s conception of the morally necessary freedom of the rational agent, a notion which I find untenable. However, getting theological for a moment, I would contend that without agency humans cannot be considered morally responsible, that is, sin could not be justly imputed to us. This is not to deny the motivational power of sin, merely to suggest that sin consists in acts and is not some substantial or ontically real power to which we are subject but a depravity within our own beings and for which we are thus answerable. We choose to act in sin. Granted, it is not in our power to choose otherwise but we choose nonetheless. God, not wishing us to be condemned by our choices, offers the gift of grace by which are turned toward him and away from sin, judged righteous when we respond to that turning in faith, and continually infused with virtues by the power of the Spirit (this is an Arminian, rather than strictly Molinist, model). Crucially, were we not free to choose sin, were sin so overpowering that we bore no moral agency in the face of it, our own acts of sin would be justly imputable to us.

      I hope these responses have been interesting and have successfully addressed your issues. I would invite further responses from you as I think you’re raised some really interesting questions here.

      • oldhickory68 permalink
        30 March 2012 9:36 am


        Thank you for your thoughtful and courteous reply. I went and polished up on the compatibilist/libertarian discourse and found a few other things lacking in the libertarian camp, but also at the same time recognized, as you mention, the notion that we human beings are responsible for our actions and choices we make and somehow, at some level beyond our ability to comprehend, this responsibility does not conflict with God’s sovereignty. For example in Psalm 78:41-51, where we see God’s resultant judgments on Egypt which were primarily brought about through the hardness of Pharaoh’s heart, which, as we know, was ultimately brought about by God’s will.

        And yet Pharaoh was, no doubt, responsible.

        In the libertarian argument, Craig posits a difference between a desire and a teleological end when discussing the nature of agency/motivation behind an act. But the argument really does not distinguish the difference between a desire or an end. I may, for example, have a desire to see an end come to pass. What then would be the case for my actions? Desire or a teleological rationale?

        I don’t think Scripture gives us a comprehensive insight into God’s sovereignty, His foreknowledge and our wills. There comes a point where you stand before a locked door. Philsophy tries the different possible keys, whereas I think Luther and Lutheranism in general, from my limited knowledge of it (that’s one reason I’m going back to school!) doesn’t try to speculate too much beyond what Scripture reveals.

        Luther outlined something of God’s “secret” will or His “unknown” will.

        And, of course there’s his Bondage of the WIll, which, from my own personal experience, seems to be the best and most coherent defense of Scripture’s take on our sinful nature. It’s not about what the contingent beings do, but what God does, for His glory on the cross. Granted Luther wasn’t too terribly charitable toward Erasmus, by and large, but I think bottom line, whatever I’ve chosen to do, by God’s grace, He’s redeemed me from those choices!

        Thanks again, Matthew. Appreciate your knowledge and willingness to share it in such a format. It’s been very helpful.



  1. Molinism and Varieties of Freedom VI: Conclusions « The Molinist

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