The Reformation, and the upheavals associated with it, were paradoxically both a reaction against, and dependent upon, the humanists’ new view of “freedom”. The piety of northern Europe could not accept the anthropocentricity of the ideas that swept the south, even infiltrating the Papacy. So Luther’s protests, and those of Calvin, Zwingli and the rest, were largely fired by a desire to return to the humble God-centred faith of the Bible.
Yet it was only the humanist scholarship of people like Erasmus that made the original Bible text available to them, and both Luther and, even more, Calvin were educated in humanist methodology. Equally, support (especially political support) for Protestantism came largely from those with a stake in personal autonomy – the merchant class, the University intellectual and rulers seeking independence from Rome’s temporal power.
The issue of free-will played a bigger part in the programme of the Reformation than is often recognised. All the Reformers placed stress on human bondage to sin and the need for grace – the very first formal debate with Catholics, by Luther’s colleague Carlstadt, was on free-will rather than on the Bible, the Pope or even salvation by faith. They were opposing a new resurgence of Semi-pelagianism, which had gained influence through the new glorification of freedom in humanist Catholicism: specifically Luther opposed Desiderius Erasmus, and Calvin answered Albert Pighius speaking for the bishop of Aquila and Cardinal Cervini. Semi-pelagians tried to steer a course between Augustine and Pelagius by saying that salvation was initially an act of human will, but that supernatural grace then assisted it to fruition. Although condemned by the Council of Orange in 529, it was too congenial to the new zeitgeist to stay buried.
The Reformers themselves were motivated by what had also prompted mediaeval reform and protest movements – the desire to serve God according to his will. Given the times, though, self-determination was not far below the surface for many of its adherents. At one extreme one can point to Henry VIII in Britain, whose mixed motivations for reform included a healthy dose of modern princely self-will. His courtiers, too, saw that pushing things to their own advantage appeared to put God on their side too.
At the other extreme, one can see a mixture of obedience and autonomy in the Anabaptist movement, who had split from the magisterial reformers like Zwingli. They were prepared to die for radical biblical beliefs, and yet their adoption of Congregational government revolved around their concern to be a “free, unforced, uncompelled people.” It is sometimes hard in Protestant history to see where “obedience to God” really meant “refusal to submit to anyone”. The proliferation of sects during the English Civil War, for example, presages the plethora of denominations in America today: it is intrinsically more likely that they reflect competing human wills than the serious attempt to comply with God’s One will. The priority always seems to be the desire to be free to worship as one wishes, rather than the desire to to worship as God wishes and so become free (the biblical description, as you will recall from #3 ).
I should briefly add that the same mixture of forces was seen in the Counter-Reformation too. It is impossible to ignore the fact that “will to power” was at least as big a factor as “obedience to truth” in the bloody response to the Evangelicals. And it’s notable how much greater a role was given to human free-will in the Council of Trent than in the Council of Orange.
Within Protestantism, the first big controversy regarding human will was Arminianism, and it is still an issue today, as the flurry of posts after the first part of this thread shows. My interest here is the motivation for Arminian dissent from Protestantism’s originally almost universal Augustinian view. Arminius was from the Dutch Reformed Church, which was of a rationalistic, rather than traditionalist, bent. Unlike those of Pelagius’ time, his concern was not so much to insist on man’s responsibility but to restore autonomy:
Arminius insisted it was possible to believe in God’s sovereignty while allowing for real free will in an individual. (The History of Christianity, Ed. Tim Dowley)
To be sure, his reaction was partly against an extreme Dutch Reformed interpretation of the Bible that more or less denied human choice, but what is notable is (a) its basis in the dignity of man and (b) its philosophical roots. The old biblical tension between human and divine will was resolved rationally by downplaying the latter. This was the first time that the “dignity” of free-will was controlling doctrinal conclusions. In the end, for all the heated warfare over it, the Calvinist-Arminian divide left sufficient common ground for Calvinist Whitefield to see Arminian Wesley as his brother and co-worker, despite their sharp disagreement. So also many modern Bible-centred Christians, even when theologically savvy, identify more as “Evangelical” than as one or the other of them.
Yet the polarisation sowed the seed for greater emphases on free-will independent of God. In America, for example, Charles Finney – who openly despised theology and pioneered the idea that the true interpretation of Scripture was the “plain sense” gleaned by “ordinary folks” – based his teaching on frankly Pelagian views, only unlike the latter this was motivated by human self-sufficiency:
Religion is the work of man. It consists entirely in the right exercise of the powers of nature. It is just that and nothing else. When mankind become religious, they are not enabled to put forth exertions which they were unable before to put forth. They only exert powers which they had before, in a different way, and use them for the glory of God. A revival is not a miracle, nor dependent on a miracle, in any sense. It is a purely philosophical result of the right use of constituted means–as much as any other effect produced by the application of means. (Finney, Sinners bound to change their own hearts)
As is well known, Finney’s brand of revivalism had a huge influence on American Evangelicalism in most denominations (broadly, that which did not succumb to liberal theology). They could not afford to ignore its practical success. It subsequently spread across the Atlantic to Britain. It appealed both to the aspirations for liberty of the younger nation, and the entrepreneurial spirit of British non-conformists.
Closer to our times it’s harder to discern the most important issues. The liberal church was, obviously, inspired by rationalist “free enquiry”, judging Scripture rather than being judged (and freed) by it. At the same time anti-supernaturalism made spiritual experience entirely subjective – it was how one chose to relate to the divine. There was a trend towards downplaying sin in favour of suffering as the reason for atonement, with liberation in political and psychological terms being correspondingly emphasised. In this context arose the “suffering God” theology, and hence the God whose priority it is somehow to allow maximum autonomy for man and creation, whilst gently seeking to mitigate its evils.
Meanwhile, back in the Evangelical camp, the emphasis on man’s needs, and most importantly his “right” to free-will, led to all kinds of changes. Evangelistic strategies started from sin as a consequence of our “not being robots” but free agents, rather than from sin as a bondage caused by our rejection of freedom in God. Even sin has tended to become eclipsed by the “therapeutic gospel”, in which psychological or demonic influences limit our freedom and the priority is liberation, not forgiveness. At the extremes “Manifest Sons” teaching, the “Prosperity Gospel”, “Name it and Claim it” and so on are not really aberrations, but straight developments from Finney, largely explicable in terms of autonomy.
Open theism, the new kid on the block, can also be seen as one logical outworking of all this – even as the necessary consequence of worked-through Arminianism. For though Arminianism replaces the biblical tension between man’s will and God’s fore-ordination (eg Deuteronomy 2.30; Jeremiah 1.4-5 ) with a merely passive foreknowledge, even that seems too deterministic for many. To fit the humanistic concept of free-will, God’s foreknowledge must necessarily be restricted either by nature (God is restricted to time and a vamped-up version of human reasoning, as in Neotheism) or voluntarily (as in John Polkinghorne’s co-option of Moltmann’s kenotic thought so that God “chooses” not to know the future). The aim is that we should be truly “authentic” and free. In this way the priority to preserve the new, unbiblical concept of libertarian free-will is allowed to restrict the freedom of God to be Yahweh. It’s really the ultimate role-reversal.
But then, that’s what the Prometheus myth, as adopted by the Renaissance humanists, was all about. Brave Prometheus gets control-freak Zeus on the run. It just took rather a long time to seduce the Church.