Yes, Luther Believed in Predestination But That Doesn’t Mean You Should

When I co-taught a course on Luther’s theology last summer, we had a lively discussion regarding to what extent–Luther, the great Protestant reformer, affirmed the doctrine of predestination.

CC0 Public Domain via Max Pixel
CC0 Public Domain via Max Pixel

That is, did Luther subscribe to the notion that God “predestines” (elects), from eternity past, those who will be saved–simply as a consequence of God’s own will or decision and apart from any causation or influence of human will or agreement?

As one of my former Calvinist professors used to say: dead people can’t raise themselves from the dead, and they can’t assent to it, either. Only God can.

A logical implication of positive predestination (God specially elects those who will be saved) is that God also predestines those who will not be saved–those who will be damned. That is, God predestines the elect for salvation and the non-elect for damnation. This double-wammy is often called “double predestination.”

Some affirm single predestination, but not double predestination. But I tend to think that’s a cop-out. You can’t really have the first without the second (the logical consequence).

My co-professor and I both agreed that Luther explicitly affirmed a “Reformed,” or Calvinistic, doctrine of predestination. This is very clear in his text, The Bondage of the Will, which was an extensive polemic against Erasmus and his affirmation of the inherent goodness of humanity.

But I was surprised when one of our students, a life-long member of Lutheran churches, remarked that he had never heard this crazy notion that Luther was a predestinarian–even a single predestinarian.

I haven’t attended many Lutheran churches myself, but my impression is that the doctrine of predestination is not one that is actively taught in many Lutheran churches today–at least not in the more progressive, mainline ones. So, on further reflection, I understood why this student was so shocked at the notion that the forerunner of his movement held to a belief that this kind-hearted Lutheran found deeply problematic.

Luther’s theological affirmation of predestination is likely an embarrassment–understandably so–for those of us who find the notion (and its logical conclusion in double predestination) morally repugnant.

But if Luther held to predestination (at least the positive form of it, if not explicitly to the “double whammy”) then how did Lutheranism shift away from this strong Calvinist emphasis on election?

The shift happened quite early, but also very subtly, as Alex Ryrie explains in Protestants: The Faith that Made the Modern World:

Predestination was not Luther’s idea. St. Augustine, Western Christianity’s single most influential theologian, taught a strong doctrine of predestination, and the germ of the idea is in the New Testament. Luther did, however, quickly conclude that it was an essential consequence of his doctrines, and it was over this issue that Erasmus finally and decisively broke with him in 1524. However, most Lutherans chose to soft-pedal this part of their master’s teaching. Like Erasmus and many others, they found it intuitively morally offensive. Melanchthon smuggled in a human ability to reject God’s grace. On this point, at least, it was Melanchthon, not Luther, who shaped “Lutheran” orthodoxy (79).

Ryrie goes on to explain in this chapter, provocatively titled “The Failure of Calvinism,” that the doctrine of predestination was a divisive doctrine from the very beginning of Reformed Protestantism. Arminius was a Dutch Calvinist, before his affirmation of an effective role for the human will in salvation became anathema to the “winners” of the movement. That is, before Arminius’s teachings resulted in “Arminianism.”

But in cases like Luther’s affirmation of predestination, and the “bondage of the will,” it’s good to be reminded that we can honor and respect our theological and ecclesial forerunners without needing to believe everything they did–thank God.







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