Encyclopedia of Renaissance Philosophy

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Will, Bondage Of

  • Risto SaarinenEmail author
Living reference work entry

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-02848-4_211-2


The phrase “bondage of the will” was coined by Martin Luther in his debate with Erasmus of Rotterdam in 1525. Luther’s elaboration of the phrase is theological rather than philosophical, elucidating his basic conviction of justification by faith. Later Lutheran teaching on the will affirms its qualified freedom in human affairs and denies the will’s ability to contribute to salvation. Anglican and Reformed confessional texts teach in a similar fashion. John Calvin takes over Luther’s view of bondage and develops it into a systematic topic that is related to Calvin’s overall view of divine election and predestination. The Canons of Dort affirm Calvin’s doctrine in a strict manner. While Calvinism and Molinism evaluate human bondage differently, both early modern currents interact insofar as they develop complex philosophical theologies that affirm both divine foreknowledge and human responsibility.


Normative Text Natural Liberty Human Bondage Middle Knowledge Divine Foreknowledge 
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Impact and Legacy

The phrase “bondage of the will” (servum arbitrium) became famous through Martin Luther’s book De servo arbitrio (1525) in which Luther attacks Erasmus of Rotterdam’s view of human free will. Latin Christianity and philosophy traditionally affirmed a notion of “free decision” (liberum arbitrium). Luther took his phrase from Augustine’s Contra Iulianum (2, 8, 23). In Augustine’s late anti-Pelagian writings, the continuing servitude to sin is emphasized. Whether Luther’s phrase captures adequately Augustine’s theology (Nisula 2012) has remained an issue that continues to create tensions between Protestants and Catholics (Schneider and Wenz 2000).

In early German treatises of the Reformation, the term arbitrium was often translated with Willen (the will). For this reason, the Latin words arbitrium and voluntas both tend to be translated with “will” in early modern vernacular texts. While Protestants remained sympathetic to the basic idea of reducing the freedom of the will in religious matters, the traditional doctrinal positions regarding liberum arbitrium were also affirmed in qualified ways.

The most influential early normative text of the Reformation, the Lutheran Augsburg Confession of 1530, contains an article (§XVIII) “Concerning Free Will” (Vom freien Willen, De libero arbitrio). In this article, Lutherans teach “that the human will has some freedom for producing civil righteousness and for choosing things subject to reason. However, it does not have the power to produce the righteousness of God or spiritual righteousness without the Holy Spirit” (Augsburg Confession 2000, 51). Such a formulation does not deviate much from the overall anti-Pelagian tradition of Latin Christianity. Recent study on the reception history of De servo arbitrio has shown that early Lutherans understood the bondage of the will in the manner of the Augsburg Confession. It was generally considered in Lutheranism that human beings have responsibility of their works and that the fall into sin does not deprive humans of all freedom of choice (Kolb 2005, 285).

Philosophically, Luther’s criticism of Erasmus contains two different sets of arguments that are difficult to reconcile with one another. Luther’s arguments from God’s foreknowledge seem to lead to a strict and comprehensive determinism, as he argues that divine foreknowledge entails a strict predetermination of all later events (e.g., Luther WA 18, 615). Such arguments have, however, little to do with the psychological origins of human bondage. Luther’s arguments regarding the origins of human action are more nuanced; they also leave room for indeterminism in ways that the arguments from foreknowledge seem to rule out.

Luther’s psychology of action employs a theological dualism between spirit and sinful flesh as its starting point. Carnal people are ruled by sin; they therefore remain in complete bondage. In Christians, however, a continuous struggle between spirit and flesh takes place. As both of these theological principles are heteronomous, Christians are not self-ruling and self-determining persons. They are rather “beasts of burden” that are led by either God or sin (WA 18, 634). At the same time, however, Luther’s philosophical psychology assumes that humans are different from beasts and inanimate things in at least three ways.

First, Luther affirms man’s so-called natural aptitude, that is, the intentional capacity to receive gifts and even supernatural donations, such as the Holy Spirit. Second, a person has the freedom of choosing ordinary means, such as “the right to use, to do and to leave undone, according to his own choice.” Third, with the help of God’s grace, humans can cooperate in all kinds of things (WA 18, 636–638 and 753–754). Philosophically speaking, these three affirmations do not deviate much from those adopted by Erasmus. Luther does not aim, however, at reaching a philosophical position, but he wants to underline the basic teaching concerning justification by faith and the absolute dependence of all humans on external theological powers. Luther’s psychological arguments in De servo arbitrio lead more or less to the normative position adopted in the Augsburg Confession. The anthropological core of this position is the Christian’s inner struggle between spirit and flesh.

As a rule, incipient Protestantism does not adopt the phrase “bondage of the will” in its normative texts. Its churches rather speak of liberum arbitrium/“free will” and qualify it accordingly. Thus, the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England (1562) consider in §10 that not natural powers, but the grace of God makes humans capable of willing and cooperating with God in doing good works. The Puritan Westminster Confession (1647) affirms original natural freedom in its §9 “Of Free-Will,” saying that “God hath indued [endowed] the Will of Man with that natural Liberty, that is neither forced, nor by any absolute Necessity of Nature determined to do Good or Evil.” A sinner loses all ability to will the good, but when God works in the person, “he freeth him from his natural Bondage under Sin; and by his Grace alone enables him freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good.” Since the sinful nature does not vanish in the Christian, such action is not yet perfect; some evil tendency remains.

The above-mentioned texts aim at affirming a theological compatibility between human responsibility and human inability to do good. This compatibility is not argued philosophically; rather, the different arguments provide particular elucidations of the basic Reformation conviction that salvation is by faith only and by God’s grace only. For this reason, the philosophical coherence of the diverse arguments is not always convincing.

Probably the first ambitious and philosophically subtle defense of simultaneous bondage and responsibility is John Calvin’s Institutio of 1559 (esp. II, 1–5). Calvin wants to defend Luther’s reading of the strictly anti-Pelagian Augustine, showing that humans sin of necessity but without compulsion (II, 3, 5) and that the will must be made wholly dependent upon grace (II, 3, 14). While Calvin’s final arguments for the bondage of the will are scriptural rather than philosophical (II, 5), he clearly aims at a coherent theocentric compatibilism in which everything serves the purposes of God. All actions are finally caused by God, but Calvin considers that actions can nevertheless be co-assigned to humans. For this reason, humans work willingly and are responsible beings, although they do not have any free choice of the will (II, 4, 2).

The doctrine of bondage has its most elaborated form and greatest philosophical and theological impact in strict Calvinism. The Canons of Dort of 1619 are the most important normative explication of this doctrine. These canons connect the doctrine of divine election and predestination with the bondage of the will. They refute the view that humans simply start to employ their own powers after receiving the grace of God. At the same time, they concede that when the renewed will is moved by God, it also moves itself (a Deo acta, agit et ipsa: 1619, 3–4, 12). In this manner, even the strictest form of Calvinism holds that renewed human beings are capable of voluntary action.

While the phrase “bondage of the will” is typically Protestant, the issues of human powerlessness, the omnipotence of God in salvation, and predestination were also discussed in early modern Catholicism. Catholic spiritual thinkers like Cornelius Jansen, Mme de Guyon, and Francois Fénelon are relevant in this respect. Philosophically, Calvin’s attempt to combine predestination, bondage of the will, and human responsibility led Calvinist theology into the neighborhood of Molinism. Luis de Molina’s attempt to show the compatibility of God’s foreknowledge and human free will with the help of the concept of middle knowledge (scientia media) was discussed actively in early Calvinism (Muller 2006). While the issues of bondage and determinism became prominent in the early modern period, the phrase servum arbitrium was never so frequently employed as its classical counterpart liberum arbitrium.

Remarkably, Molinist and Calvinist issues regarding the compatibility of determinism and freedom continue to be prominent in today’s philosophy. Leading Christian philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga and Peter van Inwagen investigate compatibilist arguments and the Calvinist claim of final divine–human cooperation (Tooley 2012, ch. 9). In a somewhat paradoxical manner, the early antagonism between Luther and Erasmus has led to later convergences between Calvinists and Molinists.



Primary Literature

  1. Augsburg confession (1530). In The book of concord, ed. T. Wengert and R. Kolb. Minneapolis 2000.Google Scholar
  2. Calvin, J. 2006, orig. 1559. Institutes of the Christian religion. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.Google Scholar
  3. Canons of Dort (1619). In Müller 1999, 843–861.Google Scholar
  4. Luther, M. 1525. De servo arbitrio, vol. 18 in his Werke (WA). Weimar et al. 1883–2007.Google Scholar
  5. Müller, E.F.K. ed. 1999. Die Bekenntnisschriften der reformierten Kirche. Waltrop: Baker Academic.Google Scholar
  6. Thirty-nine articles (1562). In Müller 1999, 505–521.Google Scholar
  7. Westminster confession (1647). In Müller 1999, 542–612.Google Scholar

Secondary Literature

  1. Kolb, R. 2005. Bound choice, election, and Wittenberg theological method. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.Google Scholar
  2. Muller, R. 2006. Post-reformation reformed dogmatics: vol. 3: The divine essence and attributes. Grand Rapids.Google Scholar
  3. Nisula, T. 2012. Augustine and the functions of concupiscence. Leiden: Brill.Google Scholar
  4. Schneider, T. and G. Wenz. eds. 2000. Gerecht und Sünder zugleich? Ökumenische Klärungen. Freiburg: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.Google Scholar
  5. Tooley, M. 2012. The problem of evil. In The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/evil/

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of TheologyUniversity of HelsinkiHelsinkiFinland

Section editors and affiliations

  • David A. Lines
    • 1
  1. 1.Italian Studies, School of Modern Languages and CulturesUniversity of WarwickCoventryUnited Kingdom