Theology As Freedom; On Martin Luther's "De servo arbitrio"
Series: Dogmatik in der Moderne
- ISBN: 9783161569753
- Published By: Mohr Siebeck GmbH & Company KG
- Published: May 2019
Andrea Vestrucci’s Theology as Freedom: On Martin Luther’s “De servo arbitrio” is written for the reader who is familiar with Martin Luther’s theology in general and with his debate against Desiderius Erasmus in particular. This book is not an introduction to Luther’s De servo arbitrio in its historical context. The author expects the reader to have strong philosophical and theological background to fully grasp his systematic analysis of the true nature and goal of Luther’s De servo arbitrio. Vestrucci’s work is not for everyone, but it is persuasive, intellectually challenging, and theologically insightful.
Vestrucci’s work is a nice combination of a historical study and a systematic analysis of Luther’s De servo arbitrio. Vestrucci’s main argument is that Luther in his debate against Erasmus demonstrated the true nature of theology “as” freedom: theology “is” freedom (1). Erasmus claimed that Luther’s rejection of liberum arbitrium (free will) is absurd based on the axiomatic validity of formal conditions of language: if will is not free, it not only is nonsense but also loses its meaningfulness in discourse. Vestrucci points out that in the debate, Luther’s goal was neither to articulate the negation of human freedom nor to suggest a different concept of freedom against Erasmus’ accusation of absurdity.
Rather, Luther’s intention was to operate upon the formal language and conceptualization of freedom that Erasmus assumes as axiomatically valid: formal language, philosophical conditions, and meaningful conceptualizations need to be modified, reoriented, and reconsidered to be applied to consider freedom theologically. Free will makes sense and is axiomatically valid in all discourses except theological discourse, since theology is subjected to “divine revelation,” which is free from the formal, conceptual, and philosophical language of possibilities and necessities. Vestrucci convincingly argues that by revealing the freedom of theology (or theology’s boundedness to divine revelation), Luther tried to free Erasmus the philosopher from the limitation of formal and conceptual foundations when they are applied to theology.
What does it mean that theology is freedom? Does this mean that theology is arbitrary? Vestrucci makes it clear that theology is also a human discipline, and therefore it still needs formal, conceptual, and philosophical language for articulation and discourse: theology is not free from the necessity of formal language and conceptualization. Instead, the freedom of theology is theology’s self-awareness of its limitation as a human discourse. Theology knows its object’s nature, namely, the absolute freedom of divine revelation. Theology accepts freely its dependence on divine revelation, and theology is free to acknowledge that as a human form, theological discourse and conceptualization is limited to fully grasp its content. Vestrucci maintains that divine revelation is not an object of investigation, “but the principle, the lumen (light), in light of which human forms and structures are re-considered as dependent on divine revelation, and thus as theologically limited” (54). Being subjected to divine revelation for its sole source and frame of reference, theology liberates itself from the assumed axiomatical validity of formal and philosophical conditions of language. The humility of theology is the freedom of theology.
Vestrucci’s systematic analysis of Luther’s theological positions in De servo arbitrio demonstrates that theology is coram Deo abscondito (before the hidden God). Divine revelation is sub contrario (under the contrary), and it creates faith that liberates reason from the unconditionality of reason’s principles and conditions (70). Divine revelation reorients the axiomatic validity of the use of the law and enables reason to see the distinction between “primus and secudus usus legis (the first and the second use of the law)”: theological use of the divine law reveals not the freedom and possibility of human will (or logical transition from ought to can) but sin as human condition (130).
Vestrucci convincingly argues that justification through grace by faith alone uncovers the absolute freedom of God who forgives sinners unconditionally beyond and against the axiomatic validity of retributive justice. Divine grace, namely, the divine promise of forgiveness, reverses the formal, conceptual, and temporal order from sollen (should) to sein (to be): the proclamation of the divine forgiveness as promise is not the declaration of a possibility, “but of a necessity—the theological necessity entailed by God’s freedom” (146). Divine grace as the promise of forgiveness is not the negation of the hidden God but the confirmation of it, which is both the source and the subject of theology: God is hidden even in the revelation under contrary forms, and God’s freedom to forgive sinners operates upon the human conceptualization of justice based on the axiomatic validity of retributive justice.
Luther’s discussion of divine predestination in De servo arbitrio is one of the most fascinating parts, and Vestrucci’s analysis of it is also intriguing. Vestrucci investigates Luther’s view of divine predestination in relation to the medieval concepts of congruous and condign merit and God’s ordinary and potential power. Vestrucci’s analysis is persuasive in that Luther’s divine predestination operates upon the axiomatic validity of retributive justice that needs to be modified when it is applied to theology: divine revelation—that is, God’s unconditional freedom to forgive sinners—promises the certainty of salvation above and outside of the human conception of reward and punishment.
A question, though, is whether God’s absolute freedom of election negates the distinction between being elected (salvation) and being rejected (damnation) by God. Vestrucci seems to argue that life, being, or sein (to be) precedes election and rejection, and that divine grace precedes life in the sense that grace gives life meaningfulness: every life, either being elected or rejected, is divine grace. Given that theology is bound to revelation, not to philosophical conceptualization, does Vestrucci suggest that the distinction between salvation and damnation should also be modified and reconsidered when it is applied to theology? Does it mean that the distinction between good and evil should also be modified to preserve the freedom of God in theology? Is there any danger of promoting theodicy, that is, justifying God’s absolute freedom, that the author criticizes in the book?
This is an excellent work of systematic analysis of a historical case in theology, and it successfully demonstrates the theological core of Luther’s De servo arbitrio: before the hidden God and divine revelation, theology is free to being paradoxical. I highly recommend it.
Inseo Song is adjunct professor of historical theology at Fuller Theological Seminary.Inseo SongDate Of Review:March 31, 2022