Free will, after the fall, exists in name only, and as long as it does what it is able to do, it commits a mortal sin.
“The first part is clear, for the will is captive and subject to sin. Not that it is nothing, but that it is not free except to do evil. According to John 8:34, 36, “Every one who commits sin is a slave to sin… So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” Hence St. Augustine says in his book, The Spirit and the Letter, 'Free will without grace has the power to do nothing but sin;' and in the second book of Against Julian, 'You call the will free, but in fact it is an enslaved will,' and in many other places.
The second part is clear from what has been said above and from the verse in Hos. 13:9, [freely rendered], “Israel, you are bringing misfortune upon yourself, for your salvation is alone with me,” and from similar passages.” (LW 31,48)
In this thesis, Luther boldly asserted that for the will after the fall of Adam is captive and subject to sin; it exists in name only, and as long as it does what it is able to do, it commits a mortal sin.
This thesis was perhaps the most offensive of all to the papal party in Luther’s day. In February, 1520, the theological committee was established to examine Luther’s writings. Finally, on June 15, 1520, Leo issued the bull Exsurge Domine (“Arise O Lord”), which charged that 41 sentences in Luther’s various writings were “heretical, scandalous, offensive to pious ears." Article 36 of the bull condemned Thesis 13 of Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation. Clearly the Church at Rome, in 1521, agreed that Luther had overstepped a critical line when they considered Luther’s Thesis 13 from the Heidelberg Disputation in the bull of excommunication.
However, Luther’s arguments on free will in Thesis 13 have been already presented by Augustine as Luther explained in the proof of Thesis 13. But why did Luther’s arguments resonate with the Roman Church in Middle Age?
The ancient culture was translated into Arabic in Bagdad from the ninth century, and it helped enrich Islamic civilization. Islamic culture in turn, was translated into Latin and Romance languages, in cities like Córdoba and Toledo on the lberia Peninsula starting from eleventh century, which contributed to the development of European culture.
The important Greek and Arabic works of natural science, philosophy and mathematics, etc, even started to be translated into Latin. Especially, the copying or re-translating of most of Aristotle's other books (of ancient Greece), from Greek or Arabic text into Latin, influenced the theology of the Middle Age.
During this period, a new method of learning called Scholasticism developed in from the rediscovery of the works of Aristotle. One of the most famous scholastic theologians, Thomas Aquinas, led the move away from the Platonic and Augustinian and towards the Aristotelian. Thomas Aquinas’ synthesis of Aristotle and Christianity proceed from the Christian belief that reason and faith are complementary, not oppositional. His interaction with the philosophy of Aristotle demonstrates both the harmony of reason and faith and the oneness of truth, which are both central to the Christian intellectual tradition.
To show that reason and faith are complementary, Aquinas argued that although humanity has been corrupted, the Fall did not obliterate all vestiges of its pre-fallen Adamic purity. The indelible image of God continues to glow like a tiny spark in the hidden depths of the soul. It was called synteresis.”For this, Lage states: 'The synteresis is regarded as an autonomously functioning faculty given to humanity in creation which provides the self with both an inborn ability and an inherent disposition toward performing good works.'” (Lage, Martin Luther's Christology and Ethics, p. 13)
Thomas Aquinas closely identified the synteresis with intellective and cognitive functioning of the mind or reason, forming what may best be understood as a rational soul. (Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Ⅰ-Ⅱ, quest. 94, art. 2) While Aquinas identified synteresis with the mind or reason, the theologians in the late Middle Age equated synteresis with voluntas.
For example, William of Ockham rejected the understanding of synteresis as a "faculty of mind" with its "fixed disposition" toward the good. Instead of seeing reason as an innate contact between the self and God, Ockham argues that humanity's relationship to God is based on voluntarily conforming our will to the will of the divine. For Ockhamists, the emphasis was put on the voluntas, while for Thomists the emphasis was put on cognitive and intellectual function of the synteresis rationis. However, while emphasizing the free will of humans, both Thomists and Ockhamists agreed on justification by means of meritorious deeds performed in cooperation with infusio gratiae.
However, Luther here stands in sharp opposition to Aristotle and the theological tradition influenced by him: “Here Thomas errs in common with his followers and with Aristotle who say, 'Practice makes perfect: just as a harp player becomes a good harp player through long practice, so these fools think that virtues of love, chastity, and humility can be achieved through practice. It is not true.” (WA 10 Ⅲ,29f.)
Denying the theological traditions in Middle Age complied by Scholasticism, Luther revealed his view on the bondage of the will. In his Exposition of Romans (1515— 1516), he states: "We are not so totally inclined toward evil that there is not reminder of us which is affected toward the good, as is evident in the synteresis.” (LW 25, 222)
Then, Luther came to argue that in Thesis 13 of the Heidelberg Disputation (1518), “Free will, after the fall, exists in name only, and as long as it does what it is able to do, it commits a mortal sin.”
The Pope and the Roman Church considered Luther’s theses as the heretical view to break down the foundation of the church and theology in the Middle Age. In January 1521, Pope Leo X excommunicated Luther. However, it is clear that the aim of Luther’s theses was to refuse the medieval theological methodology based on the philosophy of Aristotle, rather than to throw Christianity into confusion. What Luther wanted through reform was a return to the teachings of the Bible. For this, Luther states:
“Since this is the case, either I have never understood, or else the scholastic theologians have not spoken sufficiently clearly about sin and grace, for they have been under the delusion that original sin, like actual sin, is entirely removed, as if these were items that can be entirely removed in the twinkling of an eye, as shadows before a light, although the ancient fathers Augustine and Ambrose spoke entirely differently and in the way Scripture does. But those men speak in the manner of Aristotle in his Ethics, when he bases sin and righteousness on works, both their performance and omission." (LW 25, 262)
In the proof for thesis 13, Luther says that thesis 13 is also based on the Bible. Citing John 8:34, 36, “Every one who commits sin is a slave to sin … So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” Luther asserts that because man is enslaved to sin, there is no will in man to be saved. Salvation does not come by our own will, but only by grace from outside -- the grace of Jesus Christ.
Further backup comes from St. Augustine, “Free will without grace has the power to do nothing but sin,” and “You call the will free, but in fact it is an enslaved will.” From this point of view the second part of the thesis is almost self-evident. When the will, bound to its own self, tries to do its best, it only commits deadly sin. Luther quotes Hosea 13:9, “Israel, you are bringing misfortune upon yourself, for your salvation is alone with me.”
Here, there's one more important thing to remember. Theology is always based on the teaching of the Bible. If the Church and the theology turn their eyes on other studies, such as philosophy that has no connection to the Bible, they will lose its direction and be thrown into confusion. This would lead to the corruption of the Church. Thesis 13 give us the good example for this.
The bold claim of thesis 13, “Free will, after the fall, exists in name only, and as long as it does what it is able to do, it commits a mortal sin”, will be explained in more detail in thesis 14.
Reverend and Doctor Jin O. Jeong is an assistant pastor for Korean congregation at Zion Lutheran Church, Belleville, IL. He graduated from Luther University and received a Ph.D from Yonsei University. He was also a Research Fellow at Hebrew University and Visiting Scholar at Yale Divinity School. Tel: 618-920-9311 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org