Molinism and Varieties of Freedom IV: Lutheran Perspectives
Lutheranism occupies a somewhat unique position amongst the churches and traditions born of the Reformation era. 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. 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.
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. 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. 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.
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
 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.
 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.
 See here for a discussion of Luther’s appropriation and application of Augustinian theology.
 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.
 Kenneth Melchin, the noted Lonergan scholar under whom it has been my good fortune to study, likes to describe this approach as “spiritual calisthenics.”
 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.