- Bound Choice, Election, and Wittenberg Theological Method: From Martin Luther to the Formula of Concord
Robert Kolb is one of the best historians of Luther at work today and this book adds another feather into an already bursting cap. The book begins with an interesting historical question. We all know that the debate between Luther and Erasmus was profound and important. Kolb quotes John O'Malley's statement that the debate is "one of the most famous exchanges in Western intellectual history" (7). It was so important, though, that almost nobody who wrote about Luther in the sixteenth century bothered to mention it. The debate was so important that the library in Wittenberg fails to list Luther's contribution to the discussion in its collection in 1536. How can this be, we ask? Luther thought the Bondage of the Will was one of his best works. It was also one of his most important. Today, as we look back over the Luther corpus, we can see the theological methods and commitments at work in Bondage running throughout Luther's works. We also know that the debate between Erasmus and Luther was important both to their developing theologies and to their personal regard one for the other.
Kolb does not want to try to figure out why his biographers in the sixteenth century largely ignored the debate or why the librarian failed to order the book. What he is concerned with in this book is the question of whether or not Luther's followers acknowledged the importance of the theological issues at stake in the debate even if they didn't recognize the historical significance of the debate itself. In its essence, then, this book is a work of Rezeptionsgeschichte.
Kolb's book begins with a densely packed and very fruitful exegetical examination of the contours of the Erasmus-Luther debate. When I teach introduction to Church History, students constantly misunderstand the nature of the bound or free will. I often get caricatured representations of both perspectives. This chapter is the best I've run across at clearly and concisely explaining the nature of the debate, why it happened, how it was probably unavoidable, and what were the main points of both actors. Kolb is assiduously fair in his representation of both Erasmus and Luther. He exegetes Luther in far greater detail because it is Luther's legacy he seeks to examine. In laying out ten operational motifs, Kolb provides his readers and future students with a helpful guide to the Bondage of the Will. Kolb argues that these motifs play themselves out in Luther's theology. They are: Let God be God, God Hidden and Revealed, God Chooses His Own, God Saves [End Page 907] through the Means of Grace, Human Beings are Dependent Creatures, All Things Happen by Necessity, Human Beings are Sinners, Human Creatures are Totally Responsible, Believers Live a Life of Repentance, and God is Not Responsible for Evil. As one can tell, this is not a caricatured presentation, and is one that I shall require from now on!
The second chapter begins the Rezeptionsgeschichte part of the book. Kolb begins by looking at the ways in which Philipp Melanchthon adopted, expanded, and revised Luther's commitments in Bondage. Melanchthon was Luther's closest theological ally and friend. What becomes apparent in this chapter is that Melanchthon was never just a mirror reflecting back his mentor's perspectives. He was a colleague in every sense of the word: critiquing, honing, but most of all engaging. By examining Melanchthon's thought on the will chronologically we also, I think, get a glance at the backstage discussions between Luther and Melanchthon over the years of their relationship together in Wittenberg.
It would, of course, be shocking not to see an influence in Melanchthon. But, what of Luther's students? Would they continue his legacy? The test case came in the reaction to the Schmalkaldic War in the late...