The Way of the Cross XV: Heidelberg Disputation, Thesis XV

Thesis 15
Nor could the free will endure in a state of innocence, much less do good, in an active capacity, but only in its passive capacity...

“The Master of the Sentences, quoting Augustine, states, “By these testimonies it is obviously demonstrated that man received a righteous nature and a good will when he was created, and also the help by means of which he could prevail. Otherwise it would appear as though he had not fallen because of his own fault.” He speaks of the active capacity, which is obviously contrary to Augustine’s opinion in his book, Concerning Reprimand and Grace (De Correptione et Gratia), where the latter puts it in this way: “He received the ability to act, if he so willed, but he did not have the will by means of which he could act.” By “ability to act” he understands the passive capacity, and by “will by means of which he could,” the active capacity.
The second part, however, is sufficiently clarified by the Master in the same distinction.”
 (LW 31, 49)

In the previous thesis, we discussed Luther’s two primary elements on the Will: the active will and the passive will. While Scholastic theology in the Middle Ages argued that with active power by free will even after the fall, human beings can accumulate merits to be saved, Luther argued that there is no longer power that can do good works for salvation inside human beings.

For this, Luther offers the analogy of the dead. Like a dead man could be said to have a passive capacity for life, human beings can be saved only by God’s grace from without. Thus, for Luther, after the fall, the will is strictly a passive capacity; not an active one.

In the thesis 15, Luther continued to argue that even before the fall, the free will of human beings can do good only in its passive capacity.

Scholastic teaching prior to the Reformation tried to rescue some optimism in the understanding of human nature by claiming that at least before the fall, there was some active capacity of free will to maintain the self in the state of innocence. If there were not at least a bit of active capacity in the will, it argued, how could Adam be held responsible for the fall? Thus, the Scholastic theologians taught that the active capacity of free will remains in the human beings before the fall.

In the proof of this thesis, Luther takes Peter Lombard as the example of this scholastic theology.

The, “Master," is Peter Lombard (Lat. Petrus Lombardus), a Scholastic theologian, who wrote, Book of Sentences (Quatuor libri Sententiarum) while he was a professor at the school of Notre Dame (1145-51). This theological work made the name of Peter Lombard famous, and earned him the title "Magister Sententiarum," or simply the "Magister." The work is divided into four books that, in a long series of questions, covers the entire body of theological doctrine, and unites it in a systematized whole.

The Sentences starts with the Trinity in Book I, moves on to creation in Book II, deals with Christ, the savior of the fallen creation, in Book III, and deals with the sacraments, which mediate Christ's grace, in Book IV. The free will (liberum arbitrium)of human beings is dealt in Book II.

According to Lombard, before the Fall, human beings received the grace of creation necessary to strengthen free will so that it might pursue the ultimate good effectively while not being subject to any inclination towards evil.

Lombard stated that Eve and Adam’s sin both destroyed the grace of creation, and led to the removal of the supernatural gift of grace. The consequences of sin left humanity in a situation in which it tended to evil instead of good, being unable not to sin. This does not mean, however, that free will became subject to necessity sin. Indeed, “before sin and after, the will is equally (aeque) free from necessity.” What Peter presumably means is that even the will of sinners is free from external constraint; similar to an inner movement of the soul, the will “can never be forced.” (Philipp W. Rosemann, Peter Lombard, p.113)

Including Lombard, scholastic theologians argued that at least before the fall, there was some active capacity of free will in human nature to maintain the self in the state of innocence. Rather they asked: If there were not at least a little bit of such active capacity in the will, how could Adam be held responsible for the fall? Thesis 15 rejects this scholastic teaching prior to the Reformation. Even before the fall, Luther insisted, free will had no active capacity to remain in the state of innocence, but rather only a passive capacity.

There is a wide gap of the view in regard to original sin between the scholastic theologians and Martin Luther. In order to explain the responsibility of human beings for the fall, Scholastic theologians emphasized the active capacity of free will before the fall. On the other hand, for Luther, the scholastic argument means that if free will is the cause of the fall, human beings can be saved by free will. Moreover, such an active capacity could only mean that the creature makes a move to be independent of the creator and sets out to create its own goodness.

On this account, Luther argued that even before the fall, the free will in human nature is strictly a passive capacity, not an active one. That is to say, even before the fall Adam and Eve were upheld in the state of innocence not by their own power, but from without. They reminded strictly creatures who lived by faith and trusted in their creator and not their own power

Then, how did Luther view humans’ responsibility for the sin? Why did God permit Adam to fall when he could have prevented it. There are two answers for Luther. (Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, p. 159)

Luther’s first answer is to reject the question. God is God and that means we dare not seek a reasonable explanation for what He wills. On one hand, Luther is certain that God is not the originator of sin. On the other hand, Luther finds that in his doctrine that God works all in all. There is real conflict between these two, and theology cannot solve it. Mysteries of His majesty, which we are not to investigate, but only to adore. (WA 18, 712)

The second meaning which Luther finds in God’s permitting Adam’s fall is that it is a “blessing guilt” (felx cupla). “If someone at the last judgment were to ask God: “Why did you permit Adam to fall?” God would answer, ‘So that it might be known that I like the human race so much that I would give even my Son to save men!” This means that without mankind’s fall in Adam, without sin and guilt, we would never have experienced and learned to know the full greatness of God’s mercy.”

It is also connected with Luther's Theology of the Cross. If we ask, “Why did God allow Jesus to be put to death?” Couldn't God have found another way to take away our sins and give us salvation?” We might lose the true meaning of God’s grace and love through the Cross. Rather, when we confess that Jesus Christ died and was raised again only for me, we can realize the great love and grace of God for human beings.

Likewise, the issue of understanding why God permitted Adam to fall is to know the love and mercy of God; this question is more important. In other word, God so loved human beings that He gave his only Son, Jesus Christ. Therefore, the man apart from God must be sinful.

Much concern is being voiced about Christians and the Church. The Christian church become the target of social criticism, losing its own identity and mission as the Body of Christ. Many pastors and theologians emphasize the aspect of human responsibility to reform the church. They said that Christians do good works with the great accountability because Christians are the light and the salt on the earth, but unfortunately, to do good with such responsibility is being distorted, leading people to think that they can be saved by good works.

Therefore, in this Thesis, Luther boldly stated that even Adam and Even before the fall neither do good works, nor keep their innocence without the grace of the God. How can we stand without His grace?

Today, the criticism for churches and Christians is not fulfilling their responsibility, but rather, is it ours losing the grace of God who saves us from sin and death as well as blunting His love for us?

Jin O Jeong

Reverend and Doctor Jin O. Jeong is an assistant pastor for the Korean congregation at Zion Lutheran Church, Belleville, IL. He graduated from Luther University and received a Ph.D from Yonsei University. He was also a Research Fellow at Hebrew University and Visiting Scholar at Yale Divinity School. Tel: 618-920-9311 Email:

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