Book Review: The Captivation of the Will

The Captivation Of The Will: Luther Vs. Erasmus On Freedom And Bondage by Gerhard O. Forde
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The book, “The Captivation of the Will,” was written by Gerhard O. Forde to give a bird’s eye view of the reformation discussion between Luther and Erasmus on the subject of the will.  While Forde does not go into an intense and long length discussion, he rather tries to paint a picture of the theological and psychological environment using broad strokes.

At the heart of the debate between Erasmus and Luther was obviously the understanding of the will.  Is the will free or bound?  That was the main question.  However, from Forde’s book he tries to capture the theological presuppositions behind each statement, as does Luther in his book, “The Bondage of the Will.”  Specifically Forde states on page 21,
“If you begin with the assumption of freedom, the preoccupation is always how to keep freedom in check, how to bind; But if you begin with the assumption of bondage, the preoccupation is always how to set out the word that frees.”
These beginning presuppositional points really dictate two completely different theological frameworks.  Not only are there two different frameworks, these frameworks then affect the ministry of the Word, especially in how one proclaims it.  Is the Word proclaimed to bind supposed freedom or is the Word proclaimed to set bound wills free?

At the heart of Erasmus’ presupposition and desire to fight for the freedom of the will was what Luther many times identified as the spirit of Pelagius.  Erasmus’ really couldn’t handle the idea of a bound will and the idea of having someone over top of him controlling his destiny.

Erasmus also held to the neutral state of mankind.  According to Forde on page 71,
“For Erasmus the will always seems to be that neutral gear in an automobile which can be shifted this way and that 'at will.'  But this, Luther insists, is mere abstraction, a logical fiction.”
Erasmus’ idea of a neutral state of mankind is due to his overinflated view of mankind and a diminishing or downplay of original sin.  Erasmus’ understanding of man in a neutral state led to an over emphasis on moralism and opened the door for Semi-Pelagianism.  As stated above, Luther saw this as a logical fiction and thus another example of Erasmus’ faulty theological framework.

The reason for the importance in this discussion over the will is that the very gospel and its delivery are at stake.  Luther contended that the Gospel is made cheap when the tiniest bit of merit is interjected, for when the tiniest bit of merit is introduced it turns everything back on the receiver and the Gospel is no longer good news.  Furthermore, if one begins from the presupposition of freedom the conversation inevitably turns to moralism and the goal of binding freedom rather than setting the bound will free through the Gospel.  

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Anonymous said…
In Gene Veith’s book, The Spirituality of the Cross, he makes the following statement (page 84) that I don’t understand in light of our will being bound: “Though Lutherans believe in the Law’s message that a Christian refusing to repent of sin and rejecting the faith can fall away, the Gospel banishes all fear.” Would you explain what is meant by “fall away?”


T. R. Halvorson said…
These excerpts are great. They make me want to get the book and read the whole thing.
Steve Martin said…
Forde was awesome. He expoused the radical gospel (something which scares the bejabbers out of people).

I think 'falling away' means choosing not to trust in God. We fall away all the time. But we are restored. He leads us to repentance and takes us back again. Can some choose to abandon Him altogether? Yes. The Scriptures speak of this.

I looked in Veith's book on page 84 and could not find the quote. It is difficult to understand what Veith is referring to here without the context of where he is speaking it. I must have a different copy. Where is this quote found (i.e. chapter)?

Also, what do you think Veith means by the term 'fall away' and more specifically, where is your struggle with this in connection to the bondage of the will?
Anonymous said…
Hi Matt,
The copyright on my book is 2010. The quotes comes near the end of the chapter on The Hiddenness of God. The context is our security in Christ, that the Father sees us through the cross, his blood covers all of our sins, we’re robed in his righteousness… all affirming works-free justification, setting the us free. The statement I quoted seems like Veith feels the need to throw in a disclaimer, “though Lutherans believe…”

Since our will is bound, no one seeks God, the fact that even the faith we exercise in receiving him as our savior is itself a gift from him leads me to “soak in”, “marinate” and rest in his love for me, and realizing how little I’ve understood the magnitude of the gospel.

My arminian friends have said to me the “falling away” in Galatians proves you can lose your salvation, so you’d better watch out, behave, be about doing, doing , and more doing. And while I agree with Steve that we “fall away” all the time yet he leads us to repentance, and restores us, I don’t see how ultimately we can “fall away”, that is, choose to toss our salvation away, since it’s all from God from beginning to end.

Am I missing something?

Hey Curt,

I found it. I agree with you that it does sound like a small disclaimer.

Let me appeal to the Solid Declaration for a moment. Article XI shares with us that 'election' is the 'cause' that: gains, works, helps and promotes our salvation and what belongs to it. This should gift us with gratitude and assurance. Later on in Article XI we see that many hear the word, receive it and believe for a time being but then fall away. It then says that the contempt and rejection of the Word are not 'caused' by God's foreknowledge or God not willing to grant grace for perseverance but the perverse human will.

With that said, there is a divine paradox that we hold to in the scriptures and the confessions.

Moving on to your Arminian friends. I find it interesting that the idea of one losing salvation pushes them to behavior and the Law for security. Think about that for a second! This is the spirit of Erasmus speaking, "We might fall away so therefore 'we' better watch out, behave, be about doing and more doing." In their response they are assuming that the will is capable of advancing or preserving one's salvation. Not only do they have an inflated view of mankind and the law (i.e. see Thesis 1 of the Heidelberg Disputation), they have taken their eyes off of Jesus and are looking to 'self.' Furthermore, what's ironic with this is that your Arminian Friends are appealing to Galatians as a basis why one must 'do.' Think about this for a moment, Paul is crying to Galatia that people are deserting the Christian faith by looking to works and the law for assurance rather than Christ. The very reason why they are deserting the faith is due to their eyes being taken off of Christ, yet your friends are appealing to Galatians as a basis to do more works and behavior better. It's ironic, isn't it?

Did I cover your thoughts? Anybody else want to chime in?

Anonymous said…
Thanks, Matt, for such a through response. I know how time-intensive responding to emails can be. More and more I’m embracing the divine paradoxes I see in Scripture and relaxing with “divine tensions” from our very human perspectives. I had a conversation with some close friends who were convinced the age old debate of “human responsibility” and “God’s sovereignty” could be reconciled. When I said I’m really wasn’t interested in the debate like I once was, they went rabid. Even though they’re theological universalists, I realized after that exchange that the Calvinists aren’t the only “barracudas” in the pond.

Thanks again for your input.