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Gottesblog

A blog of the Evangelical Lutheran Liturgy

What De Servo Arbitrio does and does not mean

I am very excited for the Gerhard volumne on free choice and free will to come out. There is perhaps no more misunderstood work of Luther today than his seminal De Servo Arbitrio. Even the translation is wrong: that's "bound choice [arbitrium]" not "bound will [voluntas]." One of the most egregious errors in Lutheranism today is a creeping antinomianism painted up to look like Luther's bound choice. This caricature of Lutheran teaching is just what the Papal party criticized the Lutherans for: a doctrine that would make a mockery of any attempt at good living, a theological excuse for the complete destruction of moral order in society and of all bounds in theology. (Would the ELCA's Sexual Committee and the LWF's caucus of female bishops please pick up the white phone in concourse B?) But that was always a wicked calumny. Lutherans never taught that individual external sins were inevitable, even among the unregenerate. There is a point to laws against murder or adultery or theft or any other law of external order in society and Biblical laws for the life of Christians - because human beings really do have the choice to avoid those external sins. "The devil, or my fallen nature made me do it" is not a valid defense. Here's a sample paragraph from Gerhard:

From ch. 13 to the end of the book [Bellarmine] speaks about “free choice in moral matters” and tries to prove that “as far as moral matters are concerned man has been endowed with free choice in the corrupted state of his nature,” but he does not set forth the actual status of the question and controversy distinctly and clearly enough, for we concede that unregenerate man does have some freedom to do the external works of the Law and that, consequently, in the sins which militate against exterior discipline there is no necessity of either compulsion or immutability.
Pr. H. R.Comment