By Neil Dhingra

Imagine two friends, one Protestant and the other Catholic. Perhaps they first met in a university History of the Reformation course, much like the version I once took, which, even in a secular institution, encouraged the students to take sides in such debates as that between Erasmus and Luther. (And they did.) Nevertheless, years later, while attending church services, they both are haunted by “shadow narratives.” As the Catholic friend prays, she finds herself kneeling, folding her hands, considering the saints, but also thinking about what Luther had famously claimed “experience proves” — that she cannot say with either sincerity or certainty, “I know that this pleases God.” (She does not go as far as Luther, who claimed “the pestilence of uncertainty…has infected the entire church of the pope.”) The Lutheran friend rests assured that God has forgiven her despite her fallenness but remains anxious that God’s will to save her may be “conceptually inseparable” from God’s hidden will not to save others, including those she knows and loves, and “the latter risks overwhelming the former.” (She does not go so far as Erasmus, who claimed that Luther believed in an “unjust and cruel” God.)

Despite their gently combative history course, can the two friends help one another?

Miika Ruokanen’s Trinitarian Grace in Martin Luther’s The Bondage of the Will suggests they might, particularly by clarifying what Luther meant to say in his 1525 response to Erasmus’s On Free Will. While it remains an attack on the late medieval idea that “to those who do what they can, God does not deny his grace,” Luther never meant to compose a rigorous philosophical tract — he later regretted using the term “necessity” at all. Luther meant to realistically describe the human being as influenced by either the Holy Spirit or an opposing spiritual power. “For what is the whole human race without the Spirit,” Luther asks, “but the kingdom of the devil, a confused chaos of darkness.” In this drama of human life, a human being cannot just follow the rules in Erasmus’s properly drawn-up game, because she either has been pneumatologically transformed or remains amidst these ruins. For Luther, we simply cannot be saved by a “distant juridical relation” to a God who detachedly observes our fair play, but instead require the “intimate and instant personal union of life” (Ruokanen’s words) that only comes through the direct intervention of the Spirit. Thus, Luther mentions Satan repeatedly in The Bondage of the Will; in On Free Will, Erasmus never does.


As Ruokanen writes, “Without the intensive use of Satanology, it would not be possible for Luther to defend his radical doctrine of sola gratia [free grace] so exclusively.” His vision of humanity as the scarred battlefield over which transcendent powers fight rules out any neutral space from where we decide for or against God, even to the smallest extent and with what we might imagine to be the highest part of ourselves. So, when Erasmus reads Zechariah 1:3, “Return to me, and I will return to you,” he writes, “Still more clearly Zechariah shows the effort of free choice, and the grace which responds to this effort.” Luther instead sees “return to me” as an expression of law, “exacting and imperious command,” which demands “a change of the whole life” and remains impossible for us to bring about, and then (and only then) “I will return to you” as the Gospel, “By which nothing is demanded from us, but the grace of God is offered to us.” To Luther, the idea of neutral space as the stage for the “effort of free choice” is not merely fictional, but in its prideful delusionality — its unseeing of the human condition as it is, necessarily idolatrous. What sort of God might call us to himself while we still remain under Satan’s power?

For Luther, if we deceive ourselves that we are not in fact “bound, wretched, captive, sick, and dead,” but rather already “free, happy unfettered, able, well, and alive,” we necessarily will have invested our human capacities with sacred power. “Man wants to be God, and does not want God to be God,” Luther proclaims. The magical exercise of free choice in a manageably neutral space has effectively “become Lord of lords and God of gods,” rendering Christ’s sacrifice either completely superfluous or selectively redemptive of “only the lowest part of man.” Here, human achievement — fides acquisita, a faith we will have somehow acquired — becomes competitive with genuine faith infused by the Holy Spirit that brings union with Christ, through whose alien righteousness — never our ontological possession — we are truly forgiven by our merciful Father. Human achievement seems to reduce God, potentially even recasting God into a spectator.

Paradoxically, then, trust in God, who reorients us in a manner akin to creation, not least as he acts upon our passivity, requires first abandoning our idolatrous trust in ourselves. Luther cannot imagine that God acts besides us as a fellow actor in a game with comprehensible rules, clear logic, and cooperation. We must instead confront God’s “inscrutable will” and be driven to “desperation” about ourselves. Luther himself writes, “I myself was offended more than once and brought to the very depth and abyss of despair, so that I wished I had never been created a man, before I realized how salutary that despair was, and how near to grace.” In his earlier Lectures on Romans, Luther spoke of the best as those who “resign themselves to hell if God so wills” and, here, that the children of God would act the same if “there were neither a kingdom nor a hell.” To be brought to this place of self-abandonment before God, we must completely trust the God who saves us depending “on his choice and not mine,” “not by my own exertion but by his grace and mercy.” As Ruokanen says, “This is exactly what makes him God and not just a projection of the human imagination.”

This account, however compelling in its forcefulness, would seem to make the Lutheran and Catholic friends unintelligible to one another. Erasmus will recognize free will’s damage by sin leaves it “lame” and “more inclined to evil than good,” but still he writes, “excisa non est” — there is still a capacity within the sinner, even if the sinner realizes that he turns to God with grace, and God “might have made him a frog instead of a man.” After all, for Erasmus, this grace is “common to all” in creation, and one may rely on it just as he relies on so many ecclesial and scholarly authorities, while Luther directly calls upon the intervention of the Spirit. As Ruokanen says, Erasmus simply does not share Luther’s view of the “severity of the enslavement of the human being ruled by unbelief, sin, and Satan after the Fall.” While Erasmus misinterprets certain positions of Luther’s — Luther does not believe God ever coerces us to sin and imagines the Spirit-filled Christian cooperating with God’s will and not just sinning continuously, there remain a basic divide.

In a footnote, though, Ruokanen points out the work of the philosopher Eleonore Stump as usefully minimizing the divide by positing a free will “more minimal than the ‘minimalism’ of Erasmus,” while allowing us to better understand Luther’s paradoxes. Stump notes that Augustine imagined that the will could either assent or reject, but Aquinas imagined that the will can also do…nothing. “It can just be turned off.” To update Stump’s example, imagine a person whose irrational fear of needles makes her reject (and reject) the COVID-19 vaccines. In fear, this person lacks the power to ever say “yes” to the vaccine, but she may be able to simply stop actively refusing the shot long enough for the doctor to press it on her. The will cannot choose the good, but it may finally stop refusing grace. “We can postulate that it was in Esau’s power to reject grace without thereby being committed to supposing that Jacob had it in his power to accept grace.” God’s grace is necessary but still remains responsive — to our ability to stop, and nothing more. We can become quiescent. As Stump explains, “I can walk east, or I can walk west; but I can also simply cease walking east.” (Arguably, given God’s continuous presence, we might want to speak of “reduced resistance” instead of “quiescence” — either works here.)

Thus, the Lutheran friend may be content that the human being cannot take pride in quiescence or see it as superseding the Holy Spirit; it may be equivalent to what Luther describes as “waiting for God to work” or “sighing and grasping for the grace that is offered in Christ.” After all, Stump likens quiescence to Augustine weeping in the garden, neither capable of accepting nor rejecting God’s call. But why might her Catholic friend be so suspicious of free will as to accept quiescence as the extent of its possibilities? Risto Saarinen has seen interesting parallels in Luther’s critique of our “religious” efforts as sacrificium, the desire to please a God who is imagined as unmerciful, and the Catholic thinker René Girard’s claim that many of our desires are imitative, and our “religious” efforts often take the form of driving out scapegoats upon whom we project our envy and then expel for what we imagine will be social and cosmic peace. In other words, for both Luther and Girard, our desires may not be our own, deficient only in sincerity or merely subject to distraction, but subtle forms of idolatry. After all, Girard writes, “Naïve persecutors are unaware of what they are doing,” and our prayers which are not “in the name of Christ” often presuppose an “other” — the tax collector whose prayer will not be heard in contrast to our own, or, worse, the Gerasene demoniac who keeps the demons “among the tombs and in the mountains” (Mark 5:5) and ritualistically away from us.

Thus, the Lutheran and Catholic friends may help one another in the end. The Catholic friend may be disabused of the innocence of her faltering religious efforts. The Lutheran friend may become convinced that seeing everything as the action of a paradoxical God may still let us grasp that the human being must stop refusing, if nothing more. They can help banish one another’s shadow narratives.

The friendly taking of sides in a university History of the Reformation course should never exhaust Lutheran and Catholic friendliness.

About The Author

Neil Dhingra, a Roman Catholic, is a doctoral student in education at the University of Maryland.

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5 Responses

  1. C R SEITZ

    Thank you.

    One is aware of the “free will” position of many Christians, across the board and not divided along Protestant/Catholic reformational lines (and lacking the subtlety of Erasmus)..

    One can also wonder how widespread is the logic and existential urgency of Luther in today’s non-Catholic churches.

    • Neil Dhingra

      Thanks for your generous comment. Like you, I also wonder about the “logic and existential urgency of Luther in today’s non-Catholic churches.” For instance, Luther appears as a corrective in Christianity Today’s very interesting podcast series on Mars Hill–Lutheran church architecture focusing on the cross instead of a screen and charismatic pastor, justification instead of a normative ideal of masculinity. However, there wasn’t a discussion of being more self-consciously and thoroughly Lutheran *in the first place*.

      As for the “free will” position, I tend to worry that such a position redirects church to being about reshaping our wills, whether sociologically or through psychological reflectiveness. It isn’t clear to me if that works or avoids being manipulative. (Luther, I think, saw this.) Thanks again.

      • C R SEITZ

        Thank you, as always, for your insightful commentary here. Having taught at Centre Sevres in Paris, and worshipped in our local Catholic church in Courances south of Paris (2015-2019), I sought to assemble my reflections in Convergences: Canon and Catholicity (BUP, 2020).

        As such, I follow your contributions with care.

        I agree wholeheartedly about “free will” thinking across NA (Catholics and Protestants on the same terrain).

        Holy Week blessings and may your important work continue.

      • Neil Dhingra

        Thanks for your kind remarks. I’ll read your book forthwith.

      • C R SEITZ

        You are welcome.

        My anecdotal sense (of French Catholics, now no longer a notionally faithful body) is of (in equal measure) need/humility and the sure presence of a Savior and Rescuer, to whom appeal is made (and to Mary). The dead are close. The next life is close. The ‘confidence’ of Luther probably seems a bit extravagant. A resolved overwrought-ness. That said, the many things that Luther felt were missing in his day (scripture, Christ-centered preaching, lay leadership, catechesis) I argue are very much present. I think he would be pleased (in his overwrought way…).

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