Forde and the Bound Will

Gerhard Forde, Theologian of the Cross, Luther’s Bound Will

The following is a post I’ve thrown together from notes and underlines made for preparation to teach on Luther’s conception of the bound will using Gerhard Forde’s On Being a theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518. I figured: why not share it with you, Beloveds 🤓

Gerhard Forde,[1] considering theses 13-17 in “The Problem of the Will,” asks the question, “If we are overwhelmed and captivated by grace alone, can we claim to play a part in the matter?”[2] In discussing the role of the will of the person in the encounter with God in the event of faith, he contends with the notion that we do a “little bit,” which, for Forde, is the claim of the theologian of glory. The idea: if we do our best, God will give us the desired grace.[3] “Can we or will we by our own natural powers, doing our best, prepare for the reception of grace? Are we free to will that?”[4]

Forde’s answer to the question posed is a resounding: no. There are reasons for this:

“If there is to be salvation, it cannot come by the will’s own movement. That means that there must be a death and a resurrection. The cross stands behind the question of the will. The cross itself is the evidence that we did not choose him but that he, nevertheless, chose us (John 15:16).”[5]

For Luther, and thus for Forde, the idea of the electing God is—at its roots—abhorrent to us. We abhor the good; unlike Aquinas’s argument that we are always in search of the good and are ontologically connected through our intellect to the being of God (thus seeking God)—Luther strikes a different chord. We aren’t looking for the good or God and we are content to do as we please. In other words: we are very content to keep ourselves as Lords of our small kingdoms. “We can’t accept an electing God. We will not will it.”[6]

Thesis 13 “Free will, after the fall, exists in name only, and as long as it does what it is able to do it commits a mortal sin.”

“Free will” at best is a concept and not an empirical truth and certainly not a “God gave us free will it’s in the bible” type of claim. To argue for the actuality of “free will” is to argue, according to Forde, against the electing God. Even just a “miniscule” amount will work against the electing God and this proves Luther’s point that we abhor the idea of the electing God (and are in bondage of the will). That the will does not will to hand itself over to death, it is, since the fall “an empty name.”[7] It is free to will what it wills (itself) but not what it will not will (the electing God), thus it is not free.[8]

And this gets us to:

“Thesis 14: Free will after the fall has power to do good only in a passive capacity, but it can always do evil in an active capacity.”

As is the case with anything that or anyone who is bound, they need liberation that comes from the outside. When we are stuck, we are in a passive capacity and need help from a non-stuck source (i.e. not ourselves).[9] This coincides with the dialectic of death and life prominent in the kerygma of Christ. Christ does not resurrect himself from death but is resurrected; same to for the Christian in the encounter with God in the event of faith: she is brought through death into newness of life not of her doing but of the Lord’s.[10]

“Thesis 16: The person who believes that he can obtain grace by doing what is in him adds sin to sin so that he becomes doubly guilty”

“Thesis 17: Nor does speaking in this manner give cause for despair, but for arousing the desire to humble oneself and seek the grace of Christ.”

Forde highlights that we grow uncomfortable as the theses drive home that we are not free not to sin but very much free to only sin and do “evil.”[11]

“The theologian of glory in us is beginning to cry out in frustration and despair! There is nothing to hold on to, no support left, nothing to do. Then the last-ditch defense is tried. ‘If all I do is sin, why not just quit? Why not just forget it all and sink into complete indifferent?’”[12]

For Luther and for Forde, there is a deep need to let God be God. There’s no claim we can put on God by our works as if we can hold God to a deal: If I do my part then you will *have to* do your part.  This is an objectification of God. If God is to be wholly other and we are to throw ourselves completely and totally depend on this wholly other God, then we cannot bring anything to the table. (And are we even at the table? Or, do we need to also *be* encountered by God?)

 

So, we obtain Grace through humility and not by “doing what is in one.” Humility is when we do not plead our case or try to self-justify but when we just confess and wait for justice (faith) which never comes in the form we expect. It arrives in absolution in grace in life—we are brought *out of* death in *into* new life. This type of humility must be differentiated from the “humility piety” (i.e. the “humbling the self” in an effort to save the self); this would render humility to be a work.[13]

One could argue that self-inflicted humility piety is not even humility. Humility is a death of the self and needs an active action of God for resurrection. We can be humbled; we don’t actually humble ourselves.[14]  “Humility in this context means precisely to be reduced to the position where we claim absolutely nothing.”[15] And, “The law humbles, grace exalts. Something is done to us.”[16] Humility is coming to the end of the self and the self’s ability to justify the self but it is here where we are encountered with mercy and grace. When the self (and with it the will) is brought to the end of itself it is free to confess and in this freedom to confess it is—for the first time—doing what it should: being honest. Or, in good Luther terms (what it means to be a good theologian of the Cross): calling a thing what it is.[17]

“Thesis 18: It is certain that man must utterly despair of his own ability before he is prepared to receive the grace of Christ.”

The distinction here is how to properly define “despair.” Forde explains, that this despairing is despairing of the ability of the self to receive God.[18] Forde,

“It is itself possible only because the grace of Christ has brought new hope…At the same time it is true that such preaching brings about the final surrender of faith in self, the ‘utter despair of our own ability’ that is inspired by and prepares to receive the grace of Christ. Ultimate despair is due to the temptation to believe that there is no hope beyond our own abilities. Despair itself then becomes ultimate and so leads to death. Utter despair of our own ability, however, looks to the grace of Christ and so lead to life. This subtle nuance points to a fundamental theological divide.”[19]

In this “utter” despairing we are brought to the foot of the cross in confession and are received and receive Christ as absolution/forgiveness. “Utter” despairing is not “ultimate” despairing, which leads to death unto death (the domination of toil and “actual”). “Utter” despair brings life out of death (the dominion of work and “possible”). If we are using our works as a means to self-justify, we are entering further into the realm of toiling (works in domination over us) and this is a battle we will not win. But to come to, to be brought to the end of ourselves and confess is to gain the entire world including ourselves in fullness and freedom and our works back as just works in their right place under our dominion.

 

[1] This is a book I’ve been reading since I’ve been teaching it to a group of students, introducing them to the concept of the bound will as it comes from Luther. Most of my students are more exposed to the concept of the free will and are briefly exposed to determinism. So, I thought it would be helpful to dive in a bit deeper to nuance some of these claims more. What follows here are from my underlines and notes made in the book in preparation to teach the class.

[2] Gerhard Forde On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation 1518 Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 49.

[3] Forde 50.  “Luther’s teachers were from a particular branch of late medieval scholasticism (Nominalism) that held that if we ‘do what is in us,’ that is, if we do our best, we can be assured that God will not fail to give us the desired grace.”

[4] Forde 50.

[5] Forde 51.

[6] Forde 52; Determinism rejected because of willing the things below in free choice. We do what we want no matter what we hold philosophically speaking.

[7] Forde 52-3. “There must be some free will, no matter how minuscule. But the very claim is itself evidence of bondage over against the electing God…The theological of the cross…sees that that is exactly the problem, and therefore recognizes and confesses that, since the fall, free will does not exist in reality. It is an empty name.”

[8] Forde 54. “The will is bound to will what it wills. After the fall, it is bound by sin, hence not free.” And, “…when the will, bound to its own self, tries to do its best, it only commits deadly sin. It commits deadly sin because it refuses to recognize the power of God to save and cuts off from grace…We refuse to live by the cross.”

[9] Forde 55. “In its passive capacity the will can do good when it is acted upon from without but. Not on its own, not in an active capacity.”

[10] Forde 55. “Since will after the fall is dead and bound to do deadly sin, it can be rescued only from without, as is indicated by the fact that it could not bring life out of death but could only be commanded from without by our Lord.” Same concept applies, for Forde, to Thesis 15 and remaining in innocence in the Garden.

[11] I’d like to add that this “evil” in relation to our actions of our bound will is about our desire to add to the vertical realm our activity and actions as a means to participate in a type of self-justification either in the place of or alongside of the grace of God which justifies us with God. This is not that our horizontal works are “evil” and thus should always be avoided, but when we try to use those as a means for our justification with God is when they become “evil”.

[12] Forde 60.

[13] Forde 61

[14] Forde 62

[15] Forde 62

[16] Forde 62

[17] Forde 64. “Despair would rather come if one is falsely optimistic and tells them that they don’t need a physician while they steadily decline toward death. …The theologian of the cross knows that we do the world no good by playing the role of pious or sentimental optimists. One must ‘say what a thing is.’ One is given the courage to be honest.”

 

[18] Forde 65

[19] Forde 66-7.

Jesus of Nazareth the Christ

A short post on Gerhard Ebeling’s views of Christology.

The following is something I wrote for an advanced theology class I’m cultivating/forming, and I tasked my self with completing the first assignment. The text assigned was from Word and Faith by Gerhard Ebeling, “The question of the Historical Jesus and the Problem of Christology,” which is an essay written in Honor of Rudolf Bultmann’s 75th birthday. It’s fun to participate in a project like developing this type of class, and putting yourself on the spot. The students have the opportunity to critical engage my work; I stand not above them, but with them. I wanted to share here what I wrote because 1. I’ve been meaning to process the concept of the Historical Jesus specifically from Ebeling’s view for my own work; and, 2. why not? Enjoy, Beloveds. 

 

Proving Jesus existed cannot be the sole foundation for faith. Making an apologetic for faith out of Jesus the man is a mere throwing words into the wind. Faith extends beyond that which can be discerned by the five senses. To actualize by scroll and parchment the humanity of the Jesus of Nazareth merely means that a man, Jesus of Nazareth, existed at one point in time. If the Christian claim was only Jesus as a great moral exemplar, well, then, maybe we’d have something to go on. However, that’s not the laudatory aspect of the gospel proclamation; there’s nothing substantially good or new about another good man being a good human. Yet, the proclamation of the gospel is both good and new; as it pertains to Jesus of Nazareth something else must be at work especially if, christologically speaking, Jesus Christ is the foundation of the communication of faith.

 

In his chapter, “The question of the Historical Jesus and the Problem of Christology,” Gerhard Ebeling makes this statement, “The encounter with Jesus as the witness to faith, however, is without limitation an encounter with himself. For the concentration on the coming to expression of faith—and that alone!—is the ground of the unity of ‘person’ and ‘work’, but for that reason also the ground of the totality of the encounter,” (298). And then Ebeling adds, “Faith’s view of Jesus must therefore assert itself as a furtherance to the historical view of Jesus. For faith itself is the coming to its goal of what came to expression in Jesus. The [one] who believes is with the historical Jesus,” (298). There was a man Jesus of Nazareth and the early church recorded and proclaimed very specific things about him. Thus, seemingly opposing my first comment: Jesus’s existence is everything for faith. It is in encounter with Christ (both then and now through the proclamation of the Word of God) that is the beckoning of the event of faith. There must be a man named Jesus who is of Nazareth to make the claim that this particular man is God.

 

Faith is not strict intellectual assent to the actuality of the human person named Jesus who is of Nazareth. Rather, faith asserts something about this particular man, Jesus of Nazareth. (This is the same distinction Ebeling highlights between the claims about the historical Jesus and the early church’s proclamation of Christ (300-301).) Faith is that event by which the person is encountered by God through the proclamation of Christ crucified and raised. In hearing the word the person is seized by the proclamation and faith assents: behold God. Ebeling, “To belong to Jesus means to believe, and to believe means to belong to Jesus. Faith is not a form that can be given any content at will, but is the very essence of the matter, the thing that came with Jesus Christ, the content of revelation, the gift of salvation itself,” (303). Faith explains how one moves from the demand, crucify him! To surely, this was the son of God.

 

To have faith in Christ is not because of any one thing or picture or idea presented about Jesus (304). Faith’s grounding is this man Jesus of Nazareth who is God. To quote Ebeling, “…the sole ground of faith is Jesus as the witness to faith in the pregnant sense of the ‘author and finisher of faith’,” (304). Ruled out here are any claims to reason and will or even to fear as the basis for one believing in Jesus as the savior of the world. Faith is new every morning because it asserts new every morning what came to expression in Jesus (304). It is timeless because it is the event of the encounter with God who is unrestricted by time. The proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ crucified for sins and raised for justification is the means by which the hearer is beckoned into the encounter and thus into faith and grafted into the universal and eternal message of God’s dealings with the entire world.

Who Do You Say That I am?

The Silence of Holy Saturday

If there was a day to feel the most human, I know not one better than the 24 hour period linking the event of death of Good Friday to the event of life of Resurrection Sunday.  Yet, I believe most of us rush through Saturday, not paying any attention to tension embedded in this day.

We know what happened: Jesus died on Friday and was raised on Sunday. Saturday is just the day I run those last minute errands, color eggs, plan for tomorrow’s dinner celebration, and lay out my “Easter best” outfit. My day to day productivity attempts to eclipse the possibility of eventful reflection. God can break through the clutter and cacophony of a regular day just as God can break through stone hard hearts and closed off minds. But if we are too immersed in the demands of our worlds and lives, we could miss the silence of Saturday; missing this silence and the very pregnant space-time pause, steals from the abundance of tomorrow, Easter Sunday. Might as well just be a celebration of the fertility of the Spring solstice.

In my opinion, Holy Saturday, the divine silence of this 24 hour period, is the center of the chiastic structure of massive event proportions. While everything feels normal here, nothing is actually normal. Everything is different but then none of it is. It’s the entire book of lamentations jammed into a day; it’s the moment between Adam and Eve stepping out of the Garden per divine decree and the settling in of the cherubim and seraphim who will forever prevent return. It’s the between of the walls of water dropping and drowning the Egyptian soldiers and the arrival at Mt. Sinai. It’s the deep dark of transition before Mary pushed Jesus into the world and held him to her breast. It’s the pain of Dinah after her rape and before her brothers find out; it’s the harrowing  moment between the last few breaths of the Levite’s concubine of Judges 19 and the door opening the next morning. This is where we are; it makes sense that we run through it.

There’s nothing easy about Holy Saturday. It’s filled with questions with no answers. It’s filled with crisis and confrontation. It’s filled with darkness no matter how bright the noon day sun shines. The demand of what in the hell just happened? weighs down on human skeletal structures, and there is no reprieve of an answer. This is loss; this is sorrow. Our bodies are forced into a conflict of feeling and thought: he was here, and now he’s not. The longing to touch him still courses through the nerve endings of the skin of my finger tips, but I cannot touch him anymore. The grief of desiring to lay lips on his that are now dead and gone, cold and lifeless. Substance was here and now it is seemingly vanished; the vacuum pulls my body into it: where I could not lie and sit and stand because he was there, I now can and that awareness of absence is crushing.

In the midst of this palpable heaviness that feels like divine silence, God isn’t actually speechless. The kerygma floats on the warm breeze: who do you say that I am? On Good Friday humanity answered with a conviction and judgment that ended in death. On Sunday, God will do the same but it will bring about life. But even if answers have been given, the question spoken long ago still demands an answer today; we aren’t off the hook because we’re being addressed today. And today, Saturday, the question haunts us as faith goes searching for her desire: what we knew and believed is being met with a radical upheaval of the unknowability of the future.

Today, law failed. Today, religion failed. Today, piety means nothing. Today, faith feels like a farce. Today, bodies long and hearts faint. Today, prophets only sigh. Today, love mourns. Today, grace feels beyond reach. Today, we are naked. Today, we are forced to be human, to reckon with what was and confront what will be. Today, we must wrestle with the demand of the eternal question in the divine address: who do you say that I am?