RPM, Volume 13, Number 26, June 26 to July 2, 2011

The Bondage of the Will

By Martin Luther


Section LXXVII.

Sect. LXXVII. — IN this part of the discussion, then, the Diatribe has found out a new way of eluding the most clear passages: that is, it will have that there is, in the most simple and clear passages, a trope. And as, before, when speaking in defence of "Free-will," it eluded all the imperative and conditional sentences of the law by means of conclusions tacked, and similitudes added to them; so now, where it designs to speak against us, it twists all the words of the divine promise and declaration just which way it pleases, by means of a trope which it has invented; thus, being everywhere an incomprehensible Proteus! Nay, it demands with a haughty brow, that this permission should be granted it, saying, that we ourselves, when pressed closely, are accustomed to get off by means of invented tropes: as in these instances: — "On which thou wilt, stretch forth thine hand:" (Ex. viii. 5,) that is, grace shall extend thine hand on which it will. "Make you a new heart:" (Ezek. xviii. 31,) that is, grace shall make you a new heart: and the like. It seems, therefore, an indignity offered, that Luther should be allowed to give forth an interpretation so forced and twisted, and that it should not be far more allowable to follow the interpretations of the most approved doctors.

You see then, that here, the contention is not for the text itself, no, nor for conclusions and similitudes, but for tropes and interpretations. When then shall we ever have any plain and pure text, without tropes and conclusions, either for or against "Free-will?" Has the Scriptures no such texts anywhere? And shall the cause of "Freewill" remain for ever in doubt, like a reed shaken with the wind, as being that which can be supported by no certain text, but which stands upon conclusions and tropes only, introduced by men mutually disagreeing with each other?

But let our sentiment rather be this: — that neither conclusion nor trope is to be admitted into the Scriptures, unless the evident strife of the particulars, or the absurdity of any particular as militating against an article of faith, require it: but, that the simple, pure, and natural meaning of the words is to be adhered to, which is according to the rules of grammar, and to that common use of speech which God has given unto men. For if every one be allowed, according to his own lust, to invent conclusions and tropes in the Scriptures, what will the whole Scripture together be, but a reed shaken with the wind, or a kind of Vertumnus? Then, in truth, nothing could, to a certainty, be determined on or proved concerning any one article of faith, which you might not subject to cavillation by means of some trope. But every trope ought to be avoided as the most deadly poison, which is not absolutely required by the Scriptures itself.

See what happened to that trope-inventor, Origen, in expounding the Scriptures. What just occasion did he give the calumniator Porphery, to say, ‘those who favour Origen, can be no great friends to Hieronymus.' What happened to the Arians by means of that trope, according to which, they made Christ God nominally? What happened in our own times to those new prophets concerning the words of Christ, "This is my body?" One invented a trope in the word "this," another in the word "is," another in the word "body." I have therefore observed this: — that all heresies and errors in the Scriptures, have not arisen from the simplicity of the words, as is the general report throughout the world, but from men not attending to the simplicity of the words, and hatching tropes and conclusions out of their own brain.

For example. "On which soever thou wilt, stretch forth thine hand." I, as far as I can remember, never put upon these words so violent an interpretation, as to say, ‘grace shall extend thine hand on which soever it will:' "Make yourselves a new heart," ‘that is, grace shall make you a new heart, and the like;' although the Diatribe traduces me thus in a public work, from being so carried away with, and illuded by its own tropes and conclusions, that it knows not what it says about any thing. But I said this: — that by the words, ‘stretch forth thine hand,' simply taken as they are, without tropes or conclusions, nothing else is signified than what is required of us in the stretching forth of our hand, and what we ought to do; according to the nature of an imperative expression, with grammarians, and in the common use of speech.

But the Diatribe, not attending to this simplicity of the word, but with violence adducing conclusions and tropes, interprets the words thus: — "Stretch forth thine hand;" that is, thou art able by thine own power to stretch forth thine hand. "Make you a new heart," that is, ye are able to make a new heart. ‘Believe in Christ,' that is, ye are able to believe in Christ. So that, with it, what is spoken imperatively, and what is spoken indicatively, is the same thing; or else, it is prepared to aver, that the Scripture is ridiculous and to no purpose. And these interpretations, which no grammarian will bear, must not be called, in Theologians, violent or invented, but the productions of the most approved doctors received by so many ages.

But it is easy for the Diatribe to admit and follow tropes in this part of the discussion, seeing that, it cares not at all whether what is said be certain or uncertain. Nay, it aims at making all things uncertain; for its design is, that the doctrines concerning "Free-will" should be left alone, rather than searched into. Therefore, it is enough for it, to be enabled in any way to avoid those passages by which it finds itself closely pressed.

But as for me, who am maintaining a serious cause, and who am inquiring what is, to the greatest certainty, the truth, for the establishing of consciences, I must act very differently. For me, I say, it is not enough that you say there may be a trope here: but I must inquire, whether there ought to be, or can be a trope there. For if you cannot prove that there must, of necessity, be a trope in that passage, you will effect nothing at all. There stands there this word of God — "I will harden the heart of Pharaoh." (Ex. iv. 21, Rom. ix. 17-18.) If you say that it can be understood or ought to be understood thus: — I will permit it to be hardened: I hear you say, indeed, that it may be so understood. And I hear this trope used by every one, ‘I destroyed you, because I did not correct you immediately when you began to do wrong.' But here, there is no place for that interpretation. We are not here inquiring, whether that trope be in use; we are not inquiring whether any one can use it in that passage of Paul: but this is the point of inquiry — whether or not it be sure and safe to use this passage plainly as it stands, and whether Paul would have it so used. We are not inquiring into the use of an indifferent reader of this passage, but into the use of the author Paul himself.

What will you do with a conscience inquiring thus? — Behold God, as the Author, saith, "I will harden the heart of Pharaoh:" the meaning of the word "harden" is plain and well known. But a man, who reads this passage, tells me, that in this place, ‘to harden,' signifies ‘to give an occasion of becoming hardened,' because, the sinner is not immediately corrected. But by what authority does he this? With what design, by what necessity, is the natural signification of this passage thus twisted? And suppose the reader and interpreter should be in error, how shall it be proved that such a turn ought to be given to this passage? It is dangerous, nay, impious, thus to twist the Word of God, without necessity and without authority. Would you then comfort a poor soul thus labouring, in this way? — Origen thought so and so. Cease to search into such things, because they are curious and superfluous. But he would answer you, this admonition should have been given to Moses or Paul before they wrote, and so also to God Himself, for it is they who vex us with these curious and superfluous Scriptures.

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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