THE CAPTIVATION OF THE WILL by Gerhard O. Forde, Steven Paulson, ed.
The Captivation of the Will is not an intellectually challenging book. Theologically, however, it is both challenging and rewarding. It opens with introductory essays by Steven Paulson and James Nestingen, then continues with four chapters, a postscript, and ten sermons by Forde. The book contains little scholarly apparatus, but it is steeped in a close reading of Luther’s On the Bondage of the Will. It is brief because it cuts to the heart of the matter.
Forde devotes each chapter to one point of contention between Luther and Erasmus: the Scripture; God’s nature; our willing; and soteriology. Each chapter boils the contention down to fundamental methodological differences. Erasmus is interested in moral improvement, so, for example, if any Scripture passage appears to militate against free will, “the interpreter must go to work on the text to resolve the alleged contradictions” (27). Luther, on the other hand, searches the Scriptures “to comfort and rescue the lost” (25). Erasmus, because of his interest in moral improvement, cannot abide determinism. “If God rules all things by immutable necessity, . . . both morality and theodicy are undercut. Who would lead a moral life?” (31). Luther counters that only the elect will improve morally, and only through the preaching of God’s grace in Christ. Such preaching works certainty of salvation (i.e., faith) because God rules all things by immutable necessity. “Luther’s claim is that if the divine action in, say, baptism is not a carrying out in history of the immutable will of God, it loses its object and thus its certainty. It could be just an ‘accident’ or a matter of social custom, or perhaps just the wish of Grandma!” (39). Luther takes Erasmus to task for describing the human will as a neutral faculty that can choose whether or not to engage; it is always willing, and “unless the Spirit of God enters into the matter, the will goes badly” (55). The only hope is for the Spirit of God to invade the human will and convert it.
Forde does not always achieve clarity in his arguments in this book, and his rejection of the third use of the law (p. 43) will raise some eyebrows. Nevertheless, the book is well worth the read. Without bogging down in technical details, it lays out the importance and implications of believing the will is bound. Preaching is not about encouraging or cajoling people to improve their lives. “The point of preaching is that it is the instance in which the God who rules all things by necessity reveals what it is that he necessarily wills. The preacher, that is, has the authority from the Lord Jesus actually to do the electing!” (67-68). Preaching (which for Forde encompasses “the entire office of the ministry of the church including the sacraments”—67) has the power to set free the bound human will. Forde’s book will help pastors focus more squarely on how they preach and conduct their ministries—and on the why behind the how.