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July 16, 2012


Spirit of Vatican II

Linwood Urban, in ‘Was Luther a Thoroughgoing Determinist?’ Journal of Theological Studies 22 (1971):113-39, found that only four texts in De Servo Arbitrio ‘allowed as correct the use of “free will”’ (125); these are 18:638.5ff.; 671-2; 752-3; 781.6ff.;. He interprets them as referring only to a moral duty of human beings in regard to created things rather than any real freedom. Eilert Herms (Luther Jahrbuch 2011) finds other texts that refer, rather negatively, to the exercise of liberum arbitrium by pagans and Jews, such as 18:651.13f.; 759.5-8, and he highlights the references to cooperatio, which Urban ignores. Contrary to Urban, it appears that Luther does not deny the phenomenological reality of liberum arbitrium, but denies that it can contribute anything to salvation, and confines its role in cooperatio with grace to that of a passive instrument. Moreover, the role of freedom in both the worldly and the religious spheres does not undercut the higher-level determinism whereby all events are foreknown and willed by God and so happen of necessity, not contingently. Helms gives this an existential coloring: already the lumen naturale of ancient Greek and Roman thinkers attained ‘the insight into the fact that the human being is delivered without remainder into the fatefulness of the becoming in which he finds himself’ (81). Luther was ill-advised to draw on ancient ideas of fate, introducing emphases that seem incompatible both with biblical and with modern ideas of freedom. I note that Arnauld in a letter to Leibniz refers to Luther's treatise as a piece of extremism from which the wiser Melanchthon took his distance.

Spirit of Vatican II

Melanchthon discreetly corrects Luther on many issues. A great thesis could be written on this. It is a blessing for the Evangelische Kirche that Melanchthon, not Luther, composed their chief credal document, the Augsburg Confession.

In a disputation on the divinity and humanity of Christ in 1540 Luther used the "communication of idioms" as a pretext for utterances that underplay the importance of Chalcedon's doctrine that the two natures of Christ are unmixed (asynchotos). "It is impossible to say that Christ is a creature according to his humanity, for this removes the divinity" (Weimar Ausgabe 39.2:107.22). "There creator and creature is one and the same" (105.6-7). On John 14:9, "he who sees me has seen the Father", "he sees the humanity and divinity united in one person... the one who touches the Son of God touches the divine nature itself" (108.16-19). "In virtue of the united conjunction of the two natures there is a communication of idioms such that what is ascribed to the one is ascribed to the other" (98). Thus Luther ascribes the divine quality of omnipresence to the human nature of Christ (in his eucharistic theology).

Thirteen years later, we find Melanchthon speaking of the communicatio idiomatum in a very different style, stressing the Chalcedonian unmixedness. He sees the communicatio idiomatum as a forma loquendi to be handled soberly, whereas Luther used it as a free pass for overriding normal grammar when speaking of Christ. In this form of speech, "the property of one nature is said of the concrete person and it is signified that there are two natures in Christ, not merely in the sense that one is associated with the other and separable from it, but such that the Logos assumed the human nature in a wondrous union" (Studienausgabe VI 374). "It is proper to the human nature to be scourged, suffer, die, 'while the Logos rests' (Irenaeus), that is, the divine nature is not scourged or dead [and we might add, against Luther, 'not touched'], but does not use its power, does not exert its capacities" (375).

Chalcedon permits, and indeed prescribes, more free space for the humanity of Jesus than Luther accords, and thus allows Christology to take in its stride the discoveries about the finite historical Jewish humanity of Jesus that modern scriptural scholarship has brought. This is not to say that the framework of Chalcedon or of Melanchthon's Irenaean image of the Logos resting is fully adequate for a contemporary Christology.

In general the tendency of Melanchthon's prudent modifications of Luther's teaching (on justification, free will, Christology, and Eucharist) is to speak of events and leave substances in the shade. "To know Christ is to know his benefits" is Melanchthon's only memorable saying and it expresses well the practical, judicious, and modest cast of his theological outlook.

Spirit of Vatican II

Bossuet, Histoire des Variations, wrote:

"Les outrageux discours de Luther n'étaient pas ce qu'il y avait de plus excessif dans les livres qu'il écrivit contre Erasme. La doctrine en était horrible, puisqu'ils concluent, non-seulement que le libre arbitre était tout à fait éteint dans le genre humain depuis sa chute, qui était une erreur commune dans la nouvelle Réforme, mais encore qu'il est impossible qu'un autre que Dieu soit libre; que sa prescience et la Providence divine fait que toutes choses arrivent par une immuable, éternelle et inévitable volonté de Dieu, qui foudroie et met en pièces tout le libre arbitre ; que le nom de franc arbitre est un nom qui n'appartient qu'à Dieu, et qui ne peut convenir ni à l'homme, ni à l'ange, ni â aucune créature.

"Par là il était forcé de rendre Dieu auteur de tous les crimes ; et il ne s'en cachait pas, disant en termes formels « que le franc arbitre est un titre vain ; que Dieu fait en nous le mal comme le bien ; que la grande perfection de la foi, c'est de croire que Dieu est juste, quoiqu'il nous rende nécessairement damnables par sa volonté, en sorte qu'il semble se plaire aux supplices des malheureux. » Et encore : «Dieu vous plaît quand il couronne des indignes ; il ne doit pas vous déplaire quand il damne des innocents. » Pour conclusion il ajoute « qu'il disait ces choses, non en examinant, mais en déterminant : qu'il n'entendait (a) les soumettre au jugement de personne, mais conseillait à tout le monde de s'y assujettir. »

"Il ne faut pas s'étonner que de tels excès troublassent l'esprit modeste de Mélanchthon. Ce n'est pas qu'il n'eût donné au commencement dans ces prodiges de doctrine, ayant dit lui-même avec Luther que « la prescience de Dieu rendait le libre arbitre absolument impossible, » et que « Dieu n'était pas moins cause de la trahison de Judas, que de la conversion de saint Paul. » Mais outre qu'il était plutôt entraîné dans ces sentiments par l'autorité de Luther qu'il n'y entrait de lui-même, il n'y avait rien de plus éloigné de son esprit que de les établir d'une manière si insolente ; et il ne savait plus où il en était, quand il voyait les emportements de son maître."


"Que pouvait penser Mélanchthon, le plus paisible de tous les hommes par son naturel, voyant la plume outrageuse de Luther lui susciter au dehors tant d'ennemis, pendant que la dispute sacramentaire lui en donnait. au dedans de si redoutables?"

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