Sin, Grace and Free Will

A Historical Survey of Christian Thought

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Matthew Knell
Volume 2, From Anselm to the Reformation
  • Cambridge, England: 
    James Clarke & Co.
    , January
     295 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Sin, Grace and Free Will: A Historical Survey of Christian Thought, Volume II: From Anselm to the Reformation is Matthew Knell’s follow-up to the first volume on the same subject covering the Apostolic Fathers to Augustine. The volume reviewed here continues Knell’s coverage of major Christian thinkers through the Reformation and includes a chapter on the Council of Trent. There is also a planned third volume through the 19th century. In this second volume, major figures discussed on the topics of sin, grace, and free will include Anselm of Canterbury, Bernard of Clairvaux, Peter Lombard, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin, as well as the Council of Trent.

This survey covers all that in a total of 287 pages with an index. The emphasis is on their theological thought and, by some necessity, philosophical thought. Knell arranges the material in the general pattern of sin, grace, and free will, and allows each author to speak in their own words with clear translations from their key writings within Knell’s explanatory narrative. In what follows, I will attempt to provide compact statements of some of his treatment of Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin to give the reader a sense of what is in the book, and then I will provide a brief evaluation.

Knell devotes the most space to Aquinas from his Summa Theologiae. He first notes significant influences on Aquinas’ thought, such as St. Augustine and the philosopher Aristotle. On sin and free will, God is not the cause of sin but withdraws grace from individuals for sinning (110). Aquinas asserts both predestination of the elect and reprobation of the lost. God’s grace is the cause of predestination of the elect. Knell argues that reprobation is the result of the abandonment by God for sinning. Guilt results from the exercise of the free will of the reprobated person (132). Regarding God’s grace, like many of his medieval predecessors, Aquinas is given to making serious distinctions such as the following: “There are five effects of grace in us: the first is to heal the soul, the second that we might desire good; the third to perform the good desired, the fourth to persevere in goodness, the fifth to reach glory” (139).  

Regarding Luther, Knell points out that the sheer scope, varying occasion and amount of writing can make systematic interpretation of Luther more difficult than other writers (180–81). On God’s relation to the human will, Knell notes that Luther argues in The Bondage of the Will that God works in and through all things, including the righteous, the wicked, and Satan (185). But God can do no evil, though God does work through men who do evil (185). In this way Luther wants to hold humans and the devil sinful and accountable but not charge God with evil. For Luther original sin “is inherited and evil, always clings to us and makes us guilty to eternal death” (from Disputation Concerning Justification; 189). Without God’s grace with faith, it is impossible to have a pure heart (188). And on grace, according to Luther’s Theses Against Scholastic Theology (articles 29, 56) God’s eternal predestination of an individual before they were born results in their salvation (193). Consequently, “free will” cannot be applied to any human, but only to God (207–210, 215). Throughout Luther attempts to explain God’s relation to evil and attributes to God the movement of all humans whether for good or evil, yet he does not want to charge God with any evil for actions done by humans. Knell seems to capture Luther’s understanding of the relation between God’s sovereignty and human action through his analysis of Luther. With Knell’s guidance, I am struck by Luther’s insistence on both predestination and lack of free will in the process.

Of Calvin, Knell highlights the constructive and systematic nature of Calvin’s writings exemplified by his Institutes of Christian Religion (which went through various editions from 1536 to 1559) (235–36). Knell also uses Calvin’s On the Bondage and Liberation of the Will (236). Regarding the state of humanity before God, there is an extremely serious spiritual and moral condition created by Adam’s fall into sin. Humans have become “depraved” (244–45). The original parents had free choice (241). Those after Adam’s sin inherited a sinful nature, which disabled them from freely choosing God’s will (244–48). However, there is no excuse for Adam and his descendants who have chosen of their own accord from an inherited corrupted nature (244–51). This human nature cannot be otherwise until it is changed by God’s grace though the Holy Spirit (264). Again, Knell has largely captured Calvin by quoting Calvin directly on the subject(s) and with some further explanation.

Knells’ last chapter is on the Council of Trent, the goal of which was to address both church doctrine and practice. The author points out that in balance the emphasis of council was not so much directed against the reformers as to bring reform to the church (269).

One cannot go away from reading this book without realizing the ultimate importance of sin and salvation for all the authors surveyed. Each contributed significantly to Christian theology. The reader will realize both the level of difficulty of understanding the material and in accepting some of the views of the theologians. It is hard to argue against much of Knell’s exposition. His own interpretations stay closely to the texts of the theologians he is explaining. In fact, he largely allows their own words to do the talking, though some scholars might question the translations. Some of Knell’s own views might be questioned. For instance, it needs to be emphasized that the Council of Trent was a reaction to the Protestant reformers just as much as an attempt to reform the church needs. There are views of the reformers that the Catholic church explicitly rejected and debated, including those related to free will, predestination, and justification by faith. Also, questions can be raised over Knell’s apparent view that providence is more important than predestination in Calvin’s thought (238). Calvin’s views of both election and providence spring from his understanding of God’s sovereignty in both election and providence. Though predestination may have followed providence in its treatment in the Institutes, it is of no less importance, and one might debate with Knell’s assessment there.

Despite the potential difficulty of the material both theologically and philosophically, the author has created a work that introduces the reader to sin, grace, and free will though the eyes of these medieval and Reformation authors, with copious translation of the theologians writings with Knell’s explanatory narrative. Some readers might prefer more exposition and less translation of texts with an accompanying selection of these theologians writings. Of theology, some readers might prefer not hearing affirmations of predestination and the lack of free will from some famous theologians. Nevertheless, this book should prompt readers to consult the primary sources of the theologians surveyed and is a welcome introduction to these topics.

About the Reviewer(s): 

John Mauger is a doctoral student at Claremont Graduate University.

Date of Review: 
February 25, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Matthew Knell is Lecturer in Historical Theology and Church History at the London School of Theology.


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