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Martin Luther and Desiderius Erasmus played somewhat significant roles in each other’s lives. Their early relationship is not free from a sense of the serious differences that divided them, but it largely reflected their common commitment to the biblical humanist ideas of “back to the sources” and effective rhetoric. Erasmus’ need to demarcate his positions from those of the heretic and outlaw after 1521 strengthened his resolve to demonstrate publicly at least one important difference between them, resulting in his Diatribe (1524), which provoked a debate with Luther over the freedom or bondage of the will, which Luther treated in his De servo arbitrio (On Bound Choice, 1525) and commentary on Ecclesiastes (1526/1532).

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In the free marketplace of religious ideas that is the United States, Americans have disagreed over many things. The form of church government, the proper way to worship, the extent of the scriptural canon, and the limits of racial and gender inclusion are but a few of the questions on which the nation’s majority Christians have erected boundaries among themselves, to say nothing of their differences with non-Christians. Yet an equally important source of denominational divisions has been the nexus of issues surrounding agency (humans’ freedom to act as they choose), voluntarism (defined here as the quest for salvation through this-worldly action), and predestination (the otherworldly question of whether God predetermines each person’s eternal destiny). Particularly contentious has been the question of predestination, especially the problem of whether God elects persons for salvation conditionally (based on their foreseen faith or merit) or unconditionally (based solely on his inscrutable wisdom). In the 16th and 17th centuries, this debate cut across the Reformation divide, with each position represented among both Catholic and Protestant scholastics. The New England Puritan clergy were the first major bearers of this scholastic tradition, which abounded with paradox and logical distinctions. The intensity of Puritanism’s predestinarian psychology generated a widespread anti-Calvinist backlash in the 19th century and contributed to the growth of a number of upstart denominations, including Methodists, Universalists, Restoration Movement “Christians,” Mormons, Adventists, and Christian Scientists. Debates over free will and predestination also bred factionalism and even threatened schism in several denominations, including the Congregationalists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Baptists. Less frequently, non-Christians weighed in, occasionally embracing the trope of anti-Calvinism as a way to demonstrate their own traditions’ compatibility with American freedom. By the early 21st century, though the rise of nondenominational megachurches and an increase in “nones” (people with no religious identification) had weakened the hold of traditional doctrines on many Americans, the tension between voluntarism and predestination remained basic to theism as it has been for millennia.

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Steve Paulson and Chris Croghan

The profound impact of Martin Luther’s theological confession is well documented. What is not as thoroughly explored is Luther’s understanding of the function of preaching, which both rooted his reformational breakthrough and drove the Reformation thereafter. Luther’s simple assertion—instead of the pope, there stands a sermon—resulted in a revolution that impacted all facets of 16th-century life. Luther’s simple assertion concerning proclamation deconstructed a deeply embedded framework that had arisen around Christianity that affected everything from the function of the priest to the definition and role of the church, and even Scripture itself. While Luther learned as he went, especially in the matter of preaching, the unwavering consistency and even simplicity of his theology is breathtaking. Instead of the pope, a sermon which delivers Christ’s forgiveness of sins. Faith in that promise is certain and is not to be doubted in any way. Thus, preaching and nothing else makes the church, not vice versa. The ramifications of this assertion are monumental and far-reaching. Luther’s confession caused great upheaval and consternation in his time and continues to do so even now, since it addresses the basic questions of theology and life, such as the role of the individual in salvation, whether the will is free or bound in relation to God, what the authority of Scripture is in relation to tradition, and what the difference between a command and a promise is. Yet Luther held to the claim that the most important matter was the comfort of the conscience, which can come only through a promise delivered in place and time to a person pro me and thus builds a whole gathering of the faithful as true church. Thus, in the face of outcries and upheaval in Christendom, Luther refused to blame the gospel, but simply preached as he had taught, trusting that the word of God does not return empty but accomplishes what it says. So he trusted that in that proclamation God’s will would be done: killing and making alive, naming and absolving the sin of people desperate to hear that freeing proclamation. Thus the Reformation that followed Luther became a preaching movement that distinguished the law and the gospel and applied both categorically. Proclamation is the moment and fullness of the divine election unto eternal life.