Luther (Unlike Lutheranism) Taught Double Predestination

Luther (Unlike Lutheranism) Taught Double Predestination January 11, 2018

BAG13642 Portrait of Martin Luther, 1525 (oil on panel) by Cranach, Lucas, the Elder (1472-1553); 40x26.6 cm; © Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery, UK; ( Luther (1483-1546) German religious reformer;); German, out of copyright

Lutherans deny this, but it’s evident in Luther’s “Bondage of the Will.”

I recently re-posted my 2010 paper, “Luther: God Predestines Reprobation of the Damned.” Nathan Rinne, a Lutheran apologist with whom I have engaged in several constructive dialogues, showed up in the combox, disagreeing with my take, and writing:

I’ve been reading and re-reading The Bondage of the Will. I think its a great, and greatly misunderstood, book. . . . Hope you might consider giving Schurb, a good scholar, a listen.

He gave a link to an hour-long interview about Luther’s book with Dr. Ken Schurb: a Lutheran scholar and pastor (link). He took the position that in The Bondage of the Will, Luther did not teach double predestination (i.e., predestination of the reprobate, which Catholics, Orthodox, and most Protestants — including Lutherans — deny), and that his notion of the “hidden God” taught there does not contradict this understanding. The book — so says Dr. Schurb — must be read and interpreted in light of later Lutheran teaching.

I maintain the opposite: that he does teach that in this book: per my previous paper and more information / documentation that I will present below. I also reiterate that Luther is quite capable of massively contradicting himself. On any given topic, it’s usually easy to find Luther saying things which are internally contradictory. Sometimes this is because of development over time (which would be understandable, due to changes of mind): sometimes not (which would indicate an incoherent, inconsistent set of beliefs). In at least one letter from 1528, Luther contradicted what he otherwise taught, as documented in this paper.

Lutheran Paul Althaus, in his well-known book, The Theology of Martin Luther (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966) agrees with my take. For him, The Bondage of the Will has some “dangerous” teachings in it, and contradicts other teachings of Luther. Althaus devotes an entire 13-page chapter to the question of predestination. In the first part, he highlights Bondage:

[H]e teaches that God has a double will, even a double reality. . . . God “does not will the death of the sinner, that is, according to his word; he does; however, will it according to his inscrutable will.” God revealed in his word mourns the sinner’s death and seeks to save him from it. “God hidden in his majesty, on the other hand, does not mourn the sinner’s death, or abrogate it, but works life and death and everything in all. For God has not limited himself to his word but retains his freedom over everything . . . God does many things that he does not show us through his word. He also wills many things his word does not show us.” (p. 276)

In other words, God, too, is subject to the whims and fancies of arbitrary self-contradiction, just as Luther himself is (in some areas where even his own Lutheran followers part ways with him). A nice touch there . . . Althaus continues:

Luther also bases this distinction between the hidden and the revealed God on Scripture, that is, on what Paul says in II Thessalonians 2:4. . . . Paul’s statement does not contain what Luther finds in it. (p. 277)

Althaus thinks these teachings are so contrary to Luther’s elsewhere that he wonders whether it “does not abrogate the rest of his theology as we have come to know it” (p. 278). He criticizes this line of thought in Luther, and the “hidden God” theme (as taught specifically in this book):

Is this not immeasurably dangerous, even deadly, to man’s trust in the word of promise? It actually asserts that God, according to his secret will, to a great extent disagrees with his word offering grace to all men. . . .

[It] speaks of an activity of God that does not aim at salvation and that consequently stands completely outside of and beside God’s saving activity. (pp. 278-279)

Reformed Protestant writer, Brian G. Mattson, demonstrates that Luther taught double predestination in Bondage, in his paper, “Double Or Nothing: Martin Luther’s Doctrine of Predestination.” He’s happy about it, because (unlike Althaus) he agrees with it. So sure, he’s thus biased, but so is Dr. Schurb, who wants to (from my vantage-point) force-fit Luther into the Book of Concord “box.” In any event, the proof’s in the pudding. He quotes Luther’s own words in the book:

If you hesitate to believe, or are too proud to acknowledge, that God foreknows and wills all things, not contingently, but necessarily and immutably, how can you believe, trust and rely on His promises? (p. 11 in the Mattson paper)

The elect, who fear God, will be reformed by the Holy Spirit; the rest will perish unreformed. (p. 12)

Thus God conceals His eternal mercy and loving kindness beneath eternal wrath, His righteousness beneath unrighteousness. Now, the highest degree of faith is to believe that He is merciful, though he saves so few and damns so many; to believe that He is just, though of His own will He makes us perforce proper subjects for damnation, and seems (in Erasmus’ words) ‘to delight in the torments of poor wretches and to be a fitter object for hate than for love.’ If I could by any means understand how this same God, who makes such a show of wrath and unrighteousness, can yet be merciful and just, there would be no need for faith. But as it is, the impossibility of understanding makes room for the exercise of faith when these things are preached and published; just as, when God kills, faith in life is exercised in death. (pp. 12-13; italics added)

Here, God Incarnate says: ‘I would, and thou wouldst not.’ God Incarnate, I repeat, was sent for this purpose, to will, say, do, suffer, and offer to all men, all that is necessary for salvation; albeit He offends many who, being abandoned or hardened by God’s secret will of Majesty, do not receive Him thus willing, speaking, doing and offering. . . .It belongs to the same God Incarnate to weep, lament, and groan over the perdition of the ungodly, though that will of Majesty purposely leaves and reprobates some to perish. Nor is it for us to ask why He does so, but to stand in awe of God, Who can do, and wills to do such things.

On your view [Erasmus], God will elect nobody, and no place for election will be left; all that is left is freedom of will to heed or defy the long-suffering and wrath of God. But if God is thus robbed of His power and wisdom in election, what will He be but just that idol, Chance, under whose sway all things happen at random? Eventually, we shall come to this: that men may be saved and damned without God’s knowledge! For He will not have marked out by sure election those that should be saved and those that should be damned; He will merely have set before all men His general long-suffering, which forbears and hardens, together with His chastening and punishing mercy, and left it to them to choose whether they would be saved or damned, while He Himself, perchance, goes off, as Homer says, to an Ethiopian banquet! (p. 13; italics added)

Dr. Schurb stated in his interview that elsewhere, Luther affirmed that those who had “hard” hearts, were themselves responsible for hardening them. This is the true biblical position (I’ve argued it many times). But here in this book, Luther teaches otherwise. It’s just one of innumerable instances of his self-contradiction. Luther goes on (if there were any further need for proof at this point):

Doubtless it gives the greatest possible offence to common sense or natural reason, that God. . . . should of His own mere will abandon, harden and damn men. . . . None the less, the arrow of conviction has remained, fastened deep in the hearts of learned and unlearned alike. . .that if the foreknowledge and omnipotence of God are admitted, then we must be under necessity. (p. 14)

You may be worried that it is hard to defend the mercy and equity of God in damning the undeserving, that is, ungodly persons, who, being born in ungodliness, can by no means avoid being ungodly, and staying so, and being damned, but are compelled by natural necessity to sin and perish; as Paul says: ‘We were all the children of wrath, even as others’ (Eph.2.3), created such by God Himself from a seed that had been corrupted by the sin of the one man, Adam. But here God must be reverenced and held in awe, as being most merciful to those whom He justifies and saves in their own utter unworthiness; and we must show some measure of deference to His Divine wisdom by believing Him just when to us He seems unjust. (pp. 14-15; italics added)

What God wills is not right because He ought, or was bound, so to will; on the contrary, what takes place must be right, because He so wills it. (p. 15)

[I]f God who crowns the undeserving pleases you, you ought not be displeased when He damns the undeserving! If He is just in the one case, He cannot but be just in the other. In the one case, He pours out grace and mercy upon the unworthy; in the other, He pours our wrath and severity upon the undeserving; in both He transgresses the bounds of equity in man’s sight, yet is just and true in His own sight. How it is just for Him to crown the unworthy is incomprehensible now; but we shall see it when we reach the place where He will be no more an object of faith, but we shall with open face behold Him. So too, it is at present incomprehensible how it is just for Him to damn the undeserving; yet faith will continue to believe that it is so, till the Son of Man shall be revealed. (p. 18)

Mattson concludes on p. 18: “The author of these words might well have drafted the Articles of Dordt, the Westminster Confession of Faith, or any other historic Calvinist creed.” I fully agree! He goes on to highlight the fact that confessional Lutheranism starkly differs with Martin Luther as to double predestination / reprobation:

[R]egarding the doctrine of the eternal predestination of God Martin Luther taught things directly contrary to the standards of Modern Lutheranism. Something very clearly happened in Lutheran doctrine between 1546 and 1580. . . .

Though Martin Luther and other Reformers like Calvin and Zwingli may have differed over many issues, such as the regulating principle of worship, the nature of the sacraments, the use of law in civil government, and the like, they never had a public disagreement over their respective doctrines of predestination. In an age of controversy, this fact is quite remarkable, especially as the doctrine remains the most controversial of all doctrines. If one reads the doctrine as presented by the Reformers, a single, uniform, voice will be found . . . (p. 19)

Prominent Luther biographer Julius Köstlin (himself a Lutheran) observed:

In the resoluteness with which Luther accepts the most rigorous consequences of the doctrine of predestination, he is essentially one with Zwingli and Calvin, the other leaders of the Reformation. (M. Luther, Vol. I, p. 664; cited in Grisar, Martin Luther: His Life and Work, p. 303)

From all that we know with certainty of Luther, it is plain that he stuck to his earlier views as to the hidden God and Divine predestination. Nor does Luther make any attempt to solve the difficulty, which must appear to us a contradiction ; he simply discourages reflection on the subject. (cited in Grisar, Luther, Vol. II,  translated by E. M. Lamond, edited by Luigi Cappadelta, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1913, 293)

Grisar elaborates:

Although Luther did not put forth his rigid doctrine of predestination to hell either in his popular or strictly theological writings, yet, to the end of his life, he never surrendered it; that he “never retracted it” is emphasised even in Kostlin and Kawcrau’s Life of Luther. [Vol. I, 664] . . . In his later years he is fond of speaking of the power of sin over man’s interior, and though he does not allude so decidedly or so frequently to man’s “absolute and entire dependence upon God’s Omnipotence,” yet he has by no means relinquished the idea. Thus the “difference between his earlier and later years” is one only of degree, i.e. he merely succeeded in keeping his theory more in the background. (Grisar, Luther, Vol. II, 292)

Köstlin’s collaborator Gustav Kawerau noted the unfortunate tendency among Lutherans to overlook this aspect of Luther’s teachings out of distaste for it:

. . . we must not seek to hide or explain them away, as was soon done by Luther’s followers and has been attempted even in our own day . . .  (Kostlin-Kawerau, 1, p. 663 f.; cited in Grisar, Luther, Vol. II, 264)

[Bondage of the Will] was a stumbling-block to his followers, and attempts were made to explain it away by all the arts of violent exegesis; cp. Walch (in his edition of Luther s works), 18, Introduction, p. 140 ff. (Kawerau in W. Moller, “Lehrbuch der Kirchengesch.,” 3 3, 1907, p. 63; cited in Grisar, Luther, Vol. II, 264, footnote 4)

Protestant scholar M. Staub (Das Verhaltnis der menschhchen Willensfreiheit zur Gotteslehre bei Luther und Zwingli, Zurich, 1894), although an admirer of Zwingli, excoriated Luther and thought that his view here:

“. . . leads to the destruction of all evangelical belief, not only of the personal assurance of salvation but also of Holy Scripture, which itself knows nothing of an arbitrary and faithless God in the matter of man’s salvation” (p. 30). “What then is left of Luther’s Deity?” “A Divine Person Who dispenses His grace and mercy according to His mood” (p. 37). “God appears and acts as a blind, naked force, fortuna, fatum,” because what He does is “beyond good and evil” (p. 38). “Why invent the fable of God s justice and holiness? . . . We do nothing, God works all in all. . . . This religion, which is the logical outcome of Luther’s work De servo arbitrio, is surely not Christianity but Materialism”; only the name is wanting for morality and law to become “foolish fancies” (p. 39). (cited in Grisar, Luther, Vol. II,  293)

Protestant scholar F. Kattenbusch, in the preface of his study on this work noted that:

. . . quite rightly it caused great scandal and wonder . . . the hard, offensive theory [was] no mere result of haste or of annoyance with Erasmus, coupled with the desire clearly to define his own position with regard to the latter [but really] expresses the matured conviction of the Reformer. (Luthers Lehre vom unfreien Willen und von der Predestination, Gottingen, 1875 [Anastatischer Neudruck, Gottingen, 1905]; cited in Grisar, Luther, Vol. II, 264)

Catholic Luther biographer Grisar comments:

Luther here throws to the winds the will of God Almighty for the salvation of all men, and he does so, with regard to those who are delivered over to eternal death, with a precision which is quite shocking. They were incapable of being saved because God did not so will it. Owing to the reprobate, God has “an Oeternum odium erga homines, not merely a hatred of the demerits and works of free-will, but a hatred which existed even before the world was made.” Hence He inflicts eternal punishment upon those who do not deserve it (immeritos damnat). . . . The severity of his doctrine does not here differ in any way from Calvin’s cruel views, though, as the fact is less generally known, Luther’s name has not been so closely associated with predestination to hell as Calvin’s. Luther’s doctrine on this matter did not come so much to the front as that of Calvin, because, unlike the latter, he did not make capital out of it by means of popular and practical exhortations, and because the early Lutherans, under the influence of Melanchthon, who became an opponent of the rigid denial of free-will and of Luther’s views on predestination, soon came to soften their master’s hard sayings. Yet there can be no doubt that the book De servo arbitrio does contain such teaching quite definitely expressed. (Luther, Vol. II, 268; italics added for Latin citations and titles)

The Protestant Kattenbusch states:

Luther expressly advances it as a theory that God has two contradictory wills, the secret will of which no one knows anything, and another which He causes to be proclaimed . . . [God makes use of His] exemption from the moral law which binds us [by] not being obliged actually to strive after what He proclaims to be His intention [the salvation of all men] in other words, that He is free to lie. (Ibid., p. 17; cited in Grisar, Luther, Vol. II, 269, footnote 1)

Luther wrote in The Bondage of the Will:

It is indeed an offence to sound common sense and to natural reason to hear that God is pleased to abandon men, to harden and to damn them, as though He, the All-Merciful, the All- Perfect took delight in sin and torment. Who would not be horrified at this ? . . . and yet we cannot get away from this, notwithstanding the many attempts that have been made to save the holiness of God. . . . Reason must always insist upon the compulsion God imposes on man. (cited in Grisar, Luther, Vol. II, 270; Latin original available on the same page: footnote 4)

Famous Protestant Luther biographer Roland H. Bainton cited the same passage as follows:

Common sense and natural reason are highly offended that God by his mere will deserts, hardens, and damns, as if he delighted in sins and in such eternal torments, he who is said to be of such mercy and goodness. Such a concept of God appears wicked, cruel, and intolerable, and by it many men have been revolted in all ages. I myself was once offended to the very depth of the abyss of desperation, so that I wished I had never been created. There is no use trying to get away from this by ingenious distinctions. Natural reason, however much it is offended, must admit the consequences of the omniscience and omnipotence of God. (Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1950, 253; p. 196-197 in Mentor / New American Library paperback edition)

Kattenbusch, (p. 11 f.) observes (in effect) that Luther’s position was so extreme that it was even essentially supralapsarian: a position many Calvinists regard as extreme, and one that they deny was John Calvin’s view (I have long since asserted that it was Calvin’s own position):

Adam’s sin, from which springs the depravity of the human race, was [according to Luther] called forth by God Himself . . . Adam could not avoid acting contrary to the command.

Nor did Luther forsake his utter denial of human free will (a notion commensurate and very closely allied with with double predestination) in later years:

In a Disputation of December 18, 1537, for the sake of debate the objection is advanced, that there is no purpose in making good resolutions owing to the will not being free: “Man,” says the opposer, “has no free-will, hence he can make no good resolutions, and sins of necessity whether he wishes to or not.” The professor’s reply runs : “Nego consequentiam. Man, it is true, cannot of himself alter his inclination to sin; he has this inclination and sins willingly, neither under compulsion nor unwillingly. Man’s will, not God, is the author of sin.” [Footnote 1: Disputationen M. Luthers, 1535-1545,” edited for the first time by Paul Drews, Gottingen, 1895, p. 279 f. 2 Ibid., p. 75] (Grisar, Luther, Vol. II, 287)

On another occasion, on January 29, 1536, the objector refers to the opinions of great Churchmen of olden times, that some freedom of the will exists. The reply is : “What such men say is not to be accepted as gospel-truth ; they often gave proof of weakness . . .” [Footnote 2: Ibid., p. 75] (Grisar, Luther, Vol. II, 287)

In the same year we read the following in the theses of the School: “It is godless philosophy, and censured by theology, to assert that liberum arbitrium exists in man for the forming of a just judgment and a good intention, or that it is man’s business to choose between good and evil, life and death, etc. He who speaks thus does not know what man really is, and does not understand in the least what he is talking about.” [Footnote 3: Ibid., p. 92, n. 29 ft.; my italics] (Grisar, Luther, Vol. II, 287)

I rest my case. This has been my understanding of Luther’s position (over against official Lutheranism’s) on reprobation for 27 years, and I see no reason to change it. In fact, I’m more strongly convinced than ever.


Photo credit: Portrait of Martin Luther (1525: the same year he wrote The Bondage of the Will), by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]



"Prayer is not for God's benefit. Our prayers do not inform God of anything of ..."

The Nature & Function of Prayer: ..."
"So we should waste are time invoking a god who will only answer us if ..."

The Nature & Function of Prayer: ..."
"If prayer works for other souls on earth, it also works for those in purgatory ..."

Purgatory: Exchange with a Presbyterian (Calvinist)

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment