On Snobbish Felines and the Freedom of the Human Will

Our local veterinary clinic -- where our dog, for reasons I'd rather not relate, is not welcome -- has a letter board on their grounds which typically displays humorous messages about animals. The message on display earlier this week caught my attention as I was driving to work. It read: "If cats could talk, they wouldn't." I must confess, this made me smirk -- which is generally as close as I come to laughing. I'm no despiser of cats in principle, but they do strike me as the kind of creatures that, were they suddenly endowed with the ability to speak in human language, wouldn't condescend to actually say anything to anyone. The sign made me wonder, in fact, if cats might not actually have the ability to speak, and simply don't because they can't be bothered communicating their thoughts to human beings, creatures so clearly inferior to them in every conceivable way. Can we really be sure they cannot speak if, regardless, they will not speak?

As it happened, I read that sign as I was on my way to teach a class on Luther's Bondage of the Will, and it struck me as I was doing so that this particular possibility regarding cats -- that, in actual fact, they "cannot" speak simply, or more properly, because they will not speak -- provides an apt analogy for Luther's teaching on sinful man and his freedom (or lack thereof) to exercise faith in, and genuine love towards, God. As is well known, Luther argued -- contra the claim that sinners retain some ability to choose the good apart from grace -- that sinners cannot choose Christ unless (or until) God restores their wills and so renders them capable of doing so (or, indeed, incapable of not doing so). Critics then and now have often argued that Luther's doctrine of the "bound will" destroys man's culpability for his crimes (or, alternatively, his merit for his positive moral choices), rendering him a mere puppet who acts according to the dictates of forces he cannot control.

Luther, to be sure, employs some images that might seem to warrant such criticism, describing for example the human will as a "beast of burden" subject to the mastery of either God or the Devil. "If God rides it, it wills and goes where God wills.... If Satan rides it, it wills and goes where Satan wills; nor can it choose to run to either of the two riders or to seek him out, but the riders themselves contend for the possession and control of it." But when we read beyond the often quoted extracts, we quickly realize that Luther's teaching isn't really susceptible to the charge of reducing man to a mere puppet, free from moral responsibility. Luther's teaching is really that sinful man cannot choose Christ because he will not choose Christ. Like cats who, supposing they can actually talk, don't talk because they won't talk, sinners don't orient themselves towards the true Good because, quite simply, they want nothing to do with that Good. And, needless to say, sinners are morally responsible for that which they will not choose or do.

We see this, I suggest, if we pay careful attention to a distinction Luther repeatedly draws in his writings on the subject of the will, that between the "necessity of immutability" and the "necessity of compulsion." It is a distinction found in pre-Reformation writers, especially those of an Augustinian bent; Thomas Aquinas, for example, whose perspective on the will and human freedom was much closer to Luther's than either Luther or most modern scholars admit, makes this distinction in his Summa Theologiae (see I-II, 112, 3). The "necessity of immutability" describes the necessity that pertains to human choices, for good or ill, by virtue of the fact that God at very least foreknows (and, really, has fore-ordained) everything that comes to pass. The "necessity of compulsion" describes the necessity that pertains to human choices, for good or ill, by virtue of some outside agent effectively forcing those human choices.

Luther, much like earlier Augustinians and, for that matter, Augustine himself, acknowledges that everything happens according to divine foresight and design. There is, in other words, a kind of necessity (of immutability) that governs everything that happens, including the decisions humans make. But Luther vigorously denies that human choices happen according to any "necessity of compulsion." No man, in other words, does "evil against his will, as if he were taken by the scruff of the neck and forced to it." Man does evil, rather, "of his own accord and with a ready will." Man cannot do other than sin, in other words, because he will not do other than sin.

The converted man, likewise, chooses Christ not because he is compelled to do so by God, but because God has made that man willing to do so. "If God works in us, the will is changed, and being gently breathed upon by the Spirit of God, it again wills and acts from pure willingness and inclination and of its own accord, not from compulsion, so that it cannot be turned another way by any opposition, nor be overcome or compelled even by the gates of hell, but it goes on willing and delighting in and loving the good, just as before it willed and delighted in and loved evil." The converted man "cannot be turned" from Christ, in other words, because he will not be turned from Christ, whom he now delights in and loves.

Thomas, for what it's worth, put it this way: "If God intends, while moving, that the one whose heart He moves should attain to grace, he will infallibly attain to it, according to Jn. 6:45: Every one that hath heard of the Father, and hath learned, cometh to Me."

It never occurred to Thomas or Luther to illustrate the lack of compulsion that ultimately characterizes sinful or faithful choices by discussing snobbish cats and their refusal to speak. More's the pity, as no cat has ever said.

Now if someone could just devise some way of convincing cats to try to communicate, we might clear up once and for all the question of whether they can in fact communicate. I'm fairly certain, in any case, that dogs genuinely cannot speak. If they could, I'm pretty sure mine would never shut up.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, FL. Those who have met his dog, Oakley, know exactly why Oakley is not welcome at the local veterinary clinic.