[This book review was printed in

Archiv fuer Reformationsgeschichte 62 (1971): 313-315.]

To the question at hand – Luther, right or wrong? – Fr. McSorley answers ecumenically, Yes.  Wrong is Luther’s “ecumenical sin:” he assumed prematurely that with Exsurge Domine the Neo-Semipelagianism of the Ockham-Biel wing of the moderni was being endorsed by the papacy itself.  Beyond that, Luther himself erred substantively by corrupting his own essentially biblical, Augustinian, Thomistic, “Catholic” view of human unfreedom by yoking it to what at least sounds like determinism.  Still, the argument goes, that is no reason to be likewise unecumenical and to obscure Luther’s right with his wrong.  After all, remembering his limited acquaintance with the better scholastics’ writings against Semipelagianism, remembering also that Erasmus himself could invoke such Semipelagianism as at least an allowable option, McSorley concludes that “Martin Luther was one of the few theologians in Germany who unhesitantly defended the biblical and Catholic teaching on man’s bondage to sin” (p. 293) – “in Germany,” that is, and until Trent, when at last his protest was happily obviated by the restoration of Thomism and the long lost canons of the Second Council of Orange.  Paradoxically, therefore, as in the process Luther emerges more right than wrong, so also and by the same token does Trent, not to mention Lortz and Denifle – contra, for example, Oberman.

Such ecumenical equilibrium requires of course unusual scholarship.  McSorley’s most conspicuous achievement, though at that not his most important one, is his superb coverage of the literature.  No tome is left unturned.  And this English translation of McSorley’’ German original retains his documentation throughout.  But better even than the book’s exhaustiveness, which already renders it definitive, is the tireless charity with which the author presses his “ecumenical question:” What did Luther, despite the radicality of his language, really meanSpecifically, what did he mean in De Servo Arbitro?  Actually, although McSorley does announce that document as the subject of his book, he apparently needs to devote not even his last hundred pages to it.  For so intent had he been to clarify in advance what grace and free will mean that he spent his first 200 pages on “the state of the question” – but as that “question” had been treated, notice, not by Luther but rather by a millenium and a half of Luther’s predecessors, notably Augustine and the scholastics.  That way presumably the ground will be cleared for showing finally that what Luther meant by human unfreedom is, more so than not, what the best Catholic theology had always meant thereby.

…how admittedly the sort of ecumenical compliment which Luther and his admirers would hardly begrudge.  And for all that it might well be that Luther’s answer on the unfree will does amount to McSorley’s traditionalized version of it, so long as “the state of the question” is as McSorley puts it.  But the misgiving which persists is that this very Fragestellung is itself pre-shaped and imposed.  And nothing so emboldens McSorley’s readers to press farther his search for original meanings as does his own exemplary ecumenism.

(NOTE:  The following has been struck through on this manuscript.)

[For example, while McSorley’s “Introduction” does allude to the close connection in Luther’s thought between the unfree will and “justification by faith alone,” the book itself seems unable to sustain that connection with sola fide, the very one which might best have explained in the first place why Luther credited Erasmus with having attacked the res ipsa.  The objection is not that McSorley has Luther saying much about grace and (unlike Luther) less about faith.  It is rather that, by this uncharacteristic subordination of faith, McSorley obscures Luther’s meaning of grace as well, that one positive counterpoise which McSorley most invokes to offset the offensive servum arbitrium.

            For Luther whatever else faith is to grace, during this eschatological interim it is the one way grace already has of being fully enjoyed.  In a word, faith is the way grace (similarly Christ, the righteousness of God, etc.) becomes presently “ours.”  For McSorley, by contrast, grace seems to mean that divine help without which sinners could not do what God ordains.  Apparently such grace becomes “ours,” therefore, not “by faith altogether” but only insofar as sinners interiorize it in their own volitions and acts.  Is McSorley approximately where Aquinas was when he criticized Peter Lombard’s assertion (Sentences, Bk. I, Qu. xvii) that Christians’ love is really God’s own, hence “uncreated” love?  In opposing that view on the ground that it would deprive our loving of its meritoriousness, perhaps Aquinas did mean merely (as Chenu suggests) that if our loving is uncreated it could not then be “ours.”

            We do well to recall at any rate that such an assumption did inspire Erasmus’ objection to Luther: if our good works are to be credited entirely to God, then ea nostra non sunt.  The editors of the Weinarer Ausgabe of the De Servo Arbitrio have a point when at Luther’s rejoinder to this Erasmian criticism they fine it inferior to Luther’s maturer answers elsewhere.  But Luther does say, here already, that even though Christ is not our own doing, he is not for that reason any less “ours.”  The way Luther did find him to be ours – the only way, but that way entirely – was “by faith.”  But this conclusively faith-enjoyed grace seems too radical for McSorley’s Fragestellung to assimilate.

            Else McSorley might have been able to do more than he does with Luther’s view of will as eygen eille.  Sinners of course are always “face” volitionally to be themselves, personally identical and internally consistent.  (Manent semper sui similes.)  However, although such freedom struck Luther as unworthy of the name, he did not conclude that therefore men are limited to what is their “own.”  On the contrary, what as God’s is distinctly not their own does by his fond reckoning and by the unique grasp of faith become, according to “a new and theological grammar,” theirs indeed.  It is precisely as the antithesis of this faithful “having” that Luther sees “every good Work [not merely as McSorley understates, of “the unjustified man” but also of the justified:] is sin.” (Here some attention to Luther’s Against Latomus and his encounter with the Louvian, if not the Cajetan, brand of Thomism might have helped.)]

Because of the same inattentiveness to the sola fide the book betrays needless uneasiness about Luther’s thematic word passiva. McSorley, who knows _____ Luther’s simile, passive sieut mulier ad conceptum, nevertheless by his very defense of Luther implies that he too misconstrues this passivity as kinetic inactivity.  Luther was aware surely that a woman in the act of conceiving is hardly motionless.  What he did imagine, no doubt naively, was that she is utterly receptive, a “patient” in the sense of a beneficiary.  But that recalls more Luther’s characteristic understanding of faith, namely as habere, whereby slaves who are condemned to what is merely “theirs” are yet freed to have” what is God’s own.

Do Luther’s predecessors whom McSorley canvasses anticipate this view of faith as habere, which perhaps even a resultant view of grace and freedom?  Is the precedent in Augustine, as Holl intimates?  Or is Luther punning polemically on the latinized Aristotelianism, habitus?  Still, though that Thomistic notion of habit does arouse Luther’s polemic, does not Thomas too see faith as characterized by its objectum?  The knowing of God as a “having” does appear in the German mystics.  How about the New Testament, for example, I John 5:12?  Of the possessive pronouns of the Psalter?  At any rate such an inquiry, not least because of its ecumenical promise, belongs in McSorley’s “state of the question,” but then only of conducted at a level (which is scarcely imaginable) as competent as his.


Concordia Seminary

Robert W. Bertram

About Us

In the early 1970s two seminary professors listened to the plea of some lay Christians. “Can you help us live out our faith in the world of daily work?” they asked. “Can you help us connect Sunday worship with our lives the other six days of the week?”  That is how Crossings was born.


The Crossings Community, Inc. welcomes all people looking for a practice they can carry beyond the walls of their church service and into their daily lives. We do not discriminate on the basis of race, color, ethnic origin, or gender in any policies or programs.

What do you think of the website and publications?

Send us your feedback!

Site designed by Unify Creative Agency

We’d love your thoughts…

Crossings has designed the website with streamlined look and feel, improved organization, comments and feedback features, and a new intro page for people just learning about the mission of Crossings!