Home // The God of Human Free Will is too Small: a Comment on Philip Krey’s latest book: Reformation Observances 1517-2017

The God of Human Free Will is too Small: a Comment on Philip Krey’s latest book: Reformation Observances 1517-2017


Philip D. W. Krey, ed., Reformation Observances 1517-2017, (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2017), 93 pages, with an extensive bibliography for each contribution. Preface by Christopher M. Bellito and Forward by John A. Radano.

This is my brother’s latest book, which he published for the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. It was well worth reading, because one can learn a great deal from it. I especially liked how Philip showed that Luther has become an ecumenical doctor communis of the church today. The point that Jacob Wood takes from Giovanni Berti is also among many of the highlights in the book: Grace is a conquest not by force but by love (page 88). I knew that Robert Barnes had been burned at the stake, but not that he was like the English ambassador to Wittenberg. A professor of mine described Henry VIII as an equal opportunity executioner: he’d execute three Catholics and alongside three Lutherans.

Let me just react somewhat to the emphasis that Jacob W. Wood places on the free will in his “A Catholic Perspective,” the last contribution in the book. He does a fine thing to contrast the different opponents, against whom Augustine defends his teaching about the necessity of grace, the free will, and the unity of the church: the first against the Pelagians, the second against the Manichees, and the last against the Donatists. (page 69).

He charts the internal Roman Catholic Church’s movements somewhat ignoring the Reformation’s celebration of its Pauline-Augustine-Lutheran reform movement. After seeing the struggle to come to the right understanding of the relation of each of these three Augustinian teachings, it would be wrong for me to still name the Roman Catholic, the “unreformed” church, because the movements that Jacob Wood describes are attempts at an internal reform of itself; and for the Reformation, unity was not maintained, of course, but tragically lost. J. W. Wood, however, also shows how the Catholic church has come to a new place, where real dialogue and understanding can now take place between the churches of the Reformation and the Roman Catholic Church.

What I want to pick up on is the emphasis that the papacy and Roman Catholics place on free will, when we know how strongly Luther argued against it, writing against Erasmus in his Bondage of the Will. In philosophy the same controversy exists between free will and determinism. Luther in their terms would be a compatibilist, although he holds almost completely to the incompatible position of the free will before God. According to Luther, in the vertical dimension before God we have no free will; while in a horizontal, superficial dimension, we have some choices, unless God intervenes. He writes

But if we are unwilling to let this term [free will] go altogether – though that would be the safest and most God-fearing thing to do – let us at least teach [people] to use it honestly so that free choice is allowed to [one] only with respect to what is beneath [one] and not to what is above [one]. That is to say, [someone] should know that with regard to [one’s] faculties and possessions, [one] has a right to use, to do, or to leave undone, according to [one’s] own free choice, though even this is controlled by the free choice of God alone, who acts in whatever way God chooses. On the other hand, in relation to God, or in matters pertaining to salvation or damnation, [one] has no free choice, but is a captive, subject and slave either of the will of God or the will of Satan.[1]

Luther I believe disregards free will because to him God is profoundly momentous and permeates all of creation while still continuously creating and sustaining it. Someone ruling an earthly state with temporal power can harp on good works and free will, but when experiencing the unfathomable God, earthly power dwindles down to nothing.

Consider this analogy: when someone experiences an earthquake, when the power of nature reasserts itself, one realizes that humanity and our own selves are like nothing. So great is a fire following a person trying to escape it, with fifty mile per hour winds blowing burning embers before and after you, all human powers are dwarfed and become like nothing. If a great meteor should strike the earth, humanity would become extinct. Should the environment become hostile and turn against us, because of the scientific apocalyptic consequences of global warming, we could easily also become extinct. Like Jerry Brown, the governor of California said, “We can drink lattes, go into our comfortable homes, and think our science has conquered nature. But that is delusion. Because of global warming we are completely fragile and vulnerable to the hostile power of nature if it flairs up against us.”[2]

The emphasis on free will relies on this false feeling of control, even our false sense of having conquered nature, which we have not really done. We may divide nature, smash particles in cyclotrons up to the Higgs-Bosom particle, but we fool ourselves if we think we have conquered it.

Now God is not an equal to human beings but as Creator of the Universe, God is much more powerful than earthquakes, fires, oceans, volcanoes and heavenly phenomena; the latter, like black holes, supernova, or even stars, have to have great distance from us and our lives. God has to have more. Wood cites Berti who maintains that because the human being is made in the image of God, ”man is capable of seeing God.” (In a footnote on page 88) But as scripture affirms, no one can see God and live.

Of course, with the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, God has given us the gift of grace that allows us to see God. Luther maintains that we have to approach God that way in the cradle.

Now allow an analogy between the wind and the Holy Spirit and the unfathomable forces of nature and the momentous God. The wind used as an analogy for the Holy Spirit breaks down, because the wind is a blind force that can blow you up against a building, knock you down and hurt you. The Holy Spirit is like a wind filled with life, intelligence, and concern for us greater that what we have for ourselves, and when we are carried and moved by the Holy Spirit, we can rely on that divine Person absolutely. God loves us more than we love ourselves and knows us better than we know ourselves.

In the same way, say God like an earthquake, before whom all human agency becomes like nothing, is not a blind force, but a life-giving, conscious intelligence, and filled with more love than all of the most loving human beings can muster, and God makes it possible for us to love, because God loved us first in Jesus Christ our Lord.

So where is our free will before God, the Father of all lights? There is none. Free will belongs to God alone. So by grace we are saved through Christ by faith and not by works. It is a pure gift of grace.

So when the Roman Catholic Church comes to the point of saying it is “a communion whose desires have been healed by grace,” and when the pope becomes a focus with the unity of the church in the Most Holy Three Persons of the Trinity, justification by grace can become a way to the unity of the church once again.


[1] LW 33:70. WA 18:638.

[2] He said words to this effect to Christina Amanpour, about 11/15/18.

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