Sunday, May 7, 2017

Guided by the Word: Antony, Luther, and the Nature of Free-Will

In a lecture, Fr. John Behr points out a section in St. Athanasius' Life of Antony where Antony emerged from his mountain solitude. The passage is here:
The state of his soul was one of purity, for it was constricted by grief, nor relaxed by pleasure, nor affected by either laughter or dejection. Moreover, when he saw the crowd, he was not annoyed any more than he was elated at being embraced by so many people. He maintained utter equilibrium, like one guided by reason and steadfast in that which accords with nature.
Fr. Behr explicates that the word translated as 'reason' is logikon, which might be missing the point. While logikon might mean reason, it is the same word for 'word' or, more properly, 'the Word', referring to Christ. When translated as 'reason' this appears to make Antony the arch-sage, like a Stoic philosopher of old. But Antony, like Christ, goes among the crowd miraculously exercising demons, healing infirmities, and speaking grace. Thus, to be as one guided by reason is really better understood as to be as guided by the Word, to be guided by Christ.

This leads me to the second component of this post. In his dispute with Erasmus in The Bondage of the Will, Luther rebukes the great scholar for his foolish discussion of free-will. For Erasmus, the free-will was Mankind's power to turn the will, but this power was ineffective without grace. Luther argued this was not only silly, what use is it to talk of power that is powerless, but was apt for abuse as many did not understand the subtle nuances that Erasmus, among other theologians, tacked onto the term. It is one thing to talk of the will, and its turning to-and-fro, but not to say that the will can will itself at some sort of meta-level. The presence of God purified the will to seek after God, and hence, as Luther notes, why holy men of old could persevere through such evils and troubles.

As a side-note, it's interesting to note some recent research on theological discourse about free-will in the Middle Ages. Much of it was an answer to theodicy and doctrines of Hell which, by repercussion, provided a justification for the temporal orders. Evil was the fault of men, and if they chose to do evil, they can, and thus should, be held accountable, either with the eternal torments of Hell or temporal punishments, fines, and executions. One can see the basis of much of the West's juridical order, which assigns free-will in order to assign guilt and punish in a veneer of justice. Erasmus, perhaps, represents the zenith and the nadir of this, supporting free-will as a means to maintain social order and as a powerless power. This is the most blatant theorizing on free-will as a kind of post-facto justification for the expediency of the Now.

Anyway, Luther is many times misunderstood here. If one were only to read the surrounding passage where Luther boldly claims that man is either rode by God or the Devil, then one would see how Luther is in fact asserting neither fatalism nor determinism, but the clear omnipotence of God, manifest in the Bible, that gives comfort. A human can only properly exercise his/her will, which is a faculty of Human nature, only when that person is under the guidance of God the Word. We can only follow God, and be truly Human, when we are in relation to God. This is all that Luther is saying when he speaks of man's will being rode by God. This is no different than St. Antony or St. Athanasius, who are constantly accused of instrumentalizing Human nature before God's divine power. This stupid claim only holds water if one misunderstands the distinction between person and nature, which Luther's statement in no way violates.

The point from these godly men, both Antony and Luther, is clear: man can only be good, and thus truly be man, only when he being guided by God, and in right relation. This is what it means to be a Christian. Luther clearly recognizes there are ways we may speak of free-will. In fact, he doesn't disagree with Erasmus' claim, only its significance. Appeals to the powers of our will or intellect, without relation to the work and person of Christ, is vain imagining and a sneer at our Lord's name, for Jesus means Savior. May we never forget such and may we, with Antony, Athanasius and Luther, revel in being guided by the Word. For this is our salvation. Amen.

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