Luther and Aquinas

I posted this on a discussion board I am a part of, but I enjoyed the process of having Luther open to one side of me and Aquinas on the other, and allowing them do discuss with one another as colleagues. The topic was whether a command implies the ability to obey:

Even Erasmus, in his great defense of free will against Luther, writes: "As in those who lack grace (special grace, I mean) reason is darkened but not destroyed, so it is probable that their power of will is not wholly destroyed, but has become ineffective for upright actions."

For those on both sides of the free-will debate, it is a standard Christian doctrine that even if the will is free it is ineffective for upright actions apart from God's special grace. The doctrine that God's special grace is not necessary for people to lead an upright life is Pelagianism, which is denied by both the Roman Catholic Church and the Reformed churches (being ignorant of such things, I cannot speak of those weird Easterners :P). So if we say that the mere presence of a command is sufficient for fallen men to obey, then we are jumping the tracks, so to speak, of Christian theology.

As to the existence of a will in man, no theologian denies it. Even Luther in "The Bondage of the Will" is careful to agree with Thomas Aquinas that the will is under no coercion or compulsion to sin.

Aquinas writes: “Now this necessity of coercion is altogether repugnant to the will. For we call that violent which is against the inclination of a thing. But the very movement of the will is an inclination to something. Therefore, as a thing is called natural because it is according to the inclination of nature, so a thing is called voluntary because it is according to the inclination of the will. Therefore, just as it is impossible for a thing to be at the same time violent and natural, so it is impossible for a thing to be absolutely coerced or violent, and voluntary.”

Luther, in the chapter “Of the spontaneity of necessitated acts” clarifies his position in agreement with Thomas Aquinas:

“I said ‘of necessity’; I did not say ‘of compulsion’; I meant by a necessity, not of compulsion, but of what they call immutability. That is to say: a man without the Spirit of God does not do evil against his will, under pressure, as though he were taken by the scruff of the neck and dragged into it, like a thief or footpad being dragged off against his will to punishment; but he does it spontaneously and voluntarily.”

So Luther says that in fallen man the inclination of the will, as Aquinas calls it, is toward sin, and freely so. There is no coercion here. However, God’s grace (once again, without going into the details of what everyone believes, fill in the blank with either a Thomistic prevenient grace or an Augustinian regeneration) changes the inclination of the heart so that it may freely choose the Good. As Aquinas writes, “…free-will is the subject of grace, by the help of which it chooses what is good.”

So to conclude, the presence of a command does not imply the ability to obey. Rather, along with the command must come special grace from God in order to incline the heart of an unbeliever toward God and make him capable of obedience. As it is written, “Turn thou us unto thee, O LORD, and we shall be turned” (Lam. 5:21).

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