Luther and “Double Predestination”

Luther and “Double Predestination” April 10, 2013

So, my article on “election” was published in Christianity Today’s January/February issue (2013). Predictably, a letter responding was published in the current issue of CT (April). The letter writers (a Lutheran pastor in Iowa) takes issue with my claim that Martin Luther held a view of election similar to that of the Reformed theologians Zwingli and Calvin. The writer says (“The Way to Election,” pp. 55-56) that Luther did not believe in “double predestination” He describes my claim as “a serious mischaracterization” and argues that Luther “rejected the idea of God’s electing to condemnation.”

So, to refresh my memory, I have been reading Luther and Luther scholars for the last few days. Here is one article available on line that presents a persuasive argument that Luther did believe in double predestination: . Here, as elsewhere on line, the following statement is attributed to Luther (and the sole source cited is Lorraine Boettner who doesn’t cite “chapter or verse” in Luther’s Commentary on Romans):

“All things whatever arise from, and depend on, the divine appointment; whereby it was foreordained who should receive the word of life, and who should disbelieve it; who should be delivered from their sins and who should be hardened in them; and who should be justified and who should be condemned.”

So, yesterday I read through Luther’s Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (trans., J. Theodore Mueller, Zondervan, 1954). I did not find that quote there. However, the volume lacks the all important Preface (!) so I read that at Here is a statement I found there:

“St. Paul teaches us about the eternal providence of God. It is the original source which determines who would believe and who wouldn’t, who can be set free from sin and who cannot. Such matters have been taken out of our hands and are put into God’s hand….” (This may be found in the Preface where Luther is previewing Romans 9.)

However, in the main body of the Commentary Luther, in the chapter on chapter 8 and on page 115 of the volume cited above, Luther writes thus about predestination:

“A fourth objection [to the doctrine of election as Luther believes it is taught in Romans] is this: God hardens the will of man so that he desires to transgress the divine Law all the more. Hence, God is the cause of why men sin and are condemned. This is the strongest and most weighty objection. But the Apostle meets it by saying that so it is God’s will, and that if God so wills He does not act unjustly, for all things belong to Him as the clay belongs to the potter. He thus establishes His law in order that the elect may obey it, but the reprobates may be caught in it, and so He may show both His wrath and His mercy.”

Now, of course, someone (perhaps the letter writer) may argue that this was written in 1515 and therefore hardly represents the mature Luther’s thinking about the matter. Well, neither I nor the letter writer said anything about WHEN Luther believed in or didn’t believe in double predestination. In Table Talk Luther virtually forbids any discussion of predestination because it leads into all kinds of speculation and fear. So the issue is not WHEN Luther believed or did not believe in double predestination but whether Luther EVER believed in it.

Here is a quote from Alister McGrath: “Luther explicitly teaches a doctrine of double predestination….” (Iustitia Dei, Second Ed., p. 203)

I own this marvelous book entitled What Luther Says (Concordia Press, 1959). It contains pages of quotes from Luther about election. None of them explicitly express double predestination, but the editors (two Lutheran theologians) include a footnote that says “Luther had not always spoken like this. [viz., that there is no explanation for why God does not save everyone when he obviously could] While lecturing on Romans in 1515-1516, he was still teaching particular grace and predestinated reprobation…and his earlier lectures on the Psalms, 1513-1515, reveal the same point of view….” (p. 455)

Finally, I come to Luther’s debate with Erasmus in The Bondage of the Will. I don’t see how anyone can read this 1525 essay and not come away thinking Luther believed in “single predestination” rather than double predestination. Here Luther distinguishes between two aspects of God–God “hidden” and God “revealed.” It is imperative to pay attention to this distinction when talking about what Luther believed God does and does not will and do. It is part of God’s revealed will (“God revealed”) that all be saved. (All references here are to the following edition: Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation [The Library of Christian Classics] eds. Rupp, Marlow, Watson, Drewery [Westminster Press, 1969].) But the “hidden God” wills and works everything. Commenting on Ezekiel 33:11 (which Erasmus used to argue that God does not will the condemnation of anyone) Luther writes that “It is this that God as he is preached is concerned with, namely, that sin and death should be taken away and we should be saved. … But God hidden in his majesty neither deplores nor takes away death, but works life, death, and all in all. … God does many things that he does not disclose to us in his word; he also wills many things which he does not disclose himself as willing in his word. Thus he does not will the death of a sinner, according to his word; but he wills it according to that inscrutable will of his. It is our business, however, to pay attention to the word and leave that inscrutable will alone….” (p. 201) (Lest anyone quibble here, the context makes clear that by “death” in this passage Luther is referring to eternal death, condemnation, hell.)

Later Luther writes about why God does not change the wills of wicked people when he could. “It therefore remains for someone to ask why God does not cease from the very motion of omnipotence by which the will of the ungodly is moved to go on being evil and becoming worse. … Why does he not…change the evil wills that he moves?” (p. 236) Here is one place where Luther’s nominalism/voluntarism pops out: “He is God, and for his will there is no cause or reason….” (p. 236)

Throughout the essay Luther ridicules and blasts belief in free will. And he makes abundantly clear that everything that happens, no exceptions, are willed and brought about by the hidden God–even evil. HOWEVER, people can argue that Luther did NOT believe God foreordains evil or sin or condemnation BECAUSE (although they rarely mention this) Luther DID deny that to “God revealed.” At least some of the time, and certainly in his response to Erasmus, Luther viewed God as Janus-like–with two “faces.”

So, it seems right to me to say that, for Luther, when speaking about God hidden in his majesty, God the all-determining reality, nothing escapes God’s foreordaining will and power–including reprobation. When people who know Luther well claim that he did NOT believe in double predestination, they MUST be talking about Luther’s “God revealed in his word.”

When I say that Luther believed in double predestination I mean (!) he believed God hidden in his majesty, the deus absconditus, foreordains and brings about (even if only indirectly through withdrawing his preserving grace) every sin and evil will and act of every creature including the reprobates’ condemnation.

Admittedly, later in his career, Luther shied away from this and stopped talking in that way and came close to forbidding “speculation” about predestination.

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