Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Calvin and Luther on Universal Salvation: 1 Timothy 2:4 (Part 2)

Martin Luther’s Lectures on 1 Timothy will provide the basis for examining how he interpreted 1 Timothy 2:3-5 in relation to universal salvation. The primary concern that arises in his treatment of this passage is that there is no salvation apart from God in Christ. This is evidenced by Luther’s statements, “He causes all men to be saved, therefore He is the only Savior,” and “outside of God there is no salvation” (Luther 261). Here Luther shows that since God is the one who wills salvation, and there is only one God, then there must not be any other Savior or source of salvation. This affirms what is clearly taught elsewhere in Scripture (cf. John 14:6, Acts 4:12). While Luther so far has proved that God is the only actor in our salvation, he nevertheless recognizes that all people are not in fact saved. This leads into his second concern.

The critical issue for Luther is not really whether or not “all men” is truly universal, but rather does “salvation” mean temporal or eternal salvation (Luther 261). This is a surprising twist on the interpretation of this passage. First Luther says that the statement can be taken either way, because in both cases it is still God alone who saves (Luther 261). But he proceeds to say that he believes it refers to general salvation, by which he means God’s protection from “the perils of adultery, fornication, poverty, error” and other such things (Luther 261). Why does he interpret it thus? He uses a passage from 1 Timothy 4:10, “He is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe,” to show that Paul distinguishes between “all men” and “those who believe” (Luther 261-2). From this he asserts that God saves the latter eternally, but not the former; and so we should understand Paul as referring only to general salvation for all men (Luther 262).

He expands his argument for temporal salvation by referring to the close context of 1 Timothy 2:1-2 which tells us to pray for all people, for as Luther says “such a prayer for men is acceptable, even if they are wicked” (Luther 262). According to Luther, when Paul says that God desires all men to be saved, Paul truly means “all men,” but only in the sense of offering them temporal salvation such as peace, sun and rain, etc (Luther 262). Certainly we cannot deny that God is the giver of all good things, and that He causes it to rain on the just and on the unjust alike (Mt. 5:45), but does “salvation” really mean that here?

In an article explaining how Luther dealt with this passage, Lowell Green gives further insight to why Luther understood this only as temporal salvation. In other writings, Luther pointed out that the Greek word for salvation in this verse, swthenai (root = swzw), can mean preserving or rescuing from natural dangers and afflictions (Green 59). Luther compared this usage to other passages in the Gospels where the same verb swzw is used in conjunction with healing miracles, like Matthew 9:22, (ESV) “Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, ‘Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well (seswken).’ And instantly the woman was made well (eswthe).” However, while it is often used in that sense, the predominant usage of the verb swzw in the New Testament is to refer to eternal salvation—salvation from sin, death, and the devil (cf. Mt. 1:21, 18:11; Mk. 16:16; Jn. 3:17; etc). But how do we know which sense is meant? Obviously the context will dictate the interpretation. So has Luther sufficiently proved from the context that temporal salvation rather than eternal salvation is meant in 1 Timothy 2:4?

The whole verse reads, “who desires all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (emphasis mine). The latter half of the verse explains what is meant by “to be saved,” namely that they come to a knowledge of the truth. Throughout the New Testament “truth” is used to refer to divine knowledge, especially saving knowledge (e.g. Jn. 8:32, 14:6; Gal. 2:5, etc.). In the light of this latter portion of verse 4, as well as the statement in 1 Timothy 2:5-6 that there is “One mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all,” the case seems strong for understanding salvation as eternal in this context. But here Luther is consistent in following the conclusions of his interpretation, in that he does not refer “knowledge of the truth” to a saving knowledge, but rather a general knowledge, that all men “may know the source from which they receive their blessings” (Luther 263). So in order to be consistent with his interpretation of swthenai as temporal salvation—the providence of God over creation—Luther reads “knowledge of the truth” as a “first article” knowledge of God as creator and giver; not a redemptive “second article” knowledge of Christ as Savior (Green 59).

Interestingly, Lowell Green notes that Luther in practice was inconsistent on this interpretation. For while he spoke of this “knowledge of the truth” as a general knowledge during his lectures on 1 Timothy, when he was in the pulpit he equated truth with the gospel, namely the truth regarding eternal salvation (Green 66). In fact, even in his lectures on 1 Timothy the inconsistency is apparent. He begins by pointing out that Christ gave us the command to “Go and preach to every creature” (Mt. 28:19), because He (God) “exposes to absolutely all men the light or knowledge of the truth” (Luther 263). Here Luther is equating the mission of the Gospel to all nations with the knowledge of the truth, contrary to his earlier (and later) statements about general knowledge. Luther continues in the same passage to say that the Gospel comes so that all men may know it; yet “Many do not know it” (Luther 263). Here Luther encounters the question of why some and not others, and in the next sentence he states, “This relates to His most secret will…These questions are too deep for you to explore…We must think about those matters which have been expounded and given to us” (Luther 263). Thus Luther directs the believer away from such questions, knowing that we cannot understand why not everyone is saved. Luther speaks of a hidden will of God which cannot be grasped, and urges us to focus on and learn from the revealed will of God. But after treating this question as if the passage meant eternal salvation, Luther proceeds to say that the passage is clearly about temporal salvation and welfare, and that people recognize God as the source of such blessings.

Disregarding these inconsistencies, is there still a deeper motivation for Martin Luther’s interpretation? The deeper issue for Luther may have to do with the will of God, and is not directly evident from the Lectures on 1 Timothy themselves. Lowell Green explains this critical concern of Luther, and suggests a reason why Luther read this passage in the light of temporal salvation and general knowledge rather than eternal salvation and saving knowledge. Green thinks Luther’s concern was with God’s will, and whether or not it can be averted by the human will. He quotes from one of Luther’s sermons on this text, “If our will hinders God’s will, it must be stronger than God’s will, and that which he wills need not occur, if we are not willing” (Green 63). Consequently, in the pericope under study, if God were to will the eternal salvation of all men, then all men would in fact be saved because our human will cannot hinder or be stronger than God’s will. This is a very forceful conclusion, and firmly denies the free human will, and places salvation completely under God’s sovereignty. This would explain why Luther interpreted this passage as referring to temporal salvation, because if it referred to eternal salvation the fact that some men are damned would seem to contradict the immutable will of God. But taking into consideration some of the inconsistencies of Luther’s understanding of 1 Timothy 2:4, and also that he always emphasized salvation was under Christ’s cross, there is certainly more to the broader picture than we are able to examine here.

But in the lectures here, by applying the distinction between temporal and eternal salvation, Luther appears to have dodged the question of “Why are some saved and not others?”, by removing this text altogether from the debate over eternal salvation. But has he truly guarded the will of God by moving this passage into the realm of temporal salvation? For if it is truly God’s immutable will that all men be saved with a temporal salvation (i.e. have food, health, peace, good fortune), and come to a general knowledge of the truth (that God is the giver of these blessings), has God’s will truly been met? Is it not evident from the world around us that millions of people are starving, impoverished, stricken by war and disease in third-world countries around the planet? Have they received temporal salvation? No, it seems that rather than safeguarding God’s will by changing the realm of salvation to which Paul refers, Luther has only relocated the problem. Just as the fact that God wills all men to be saved eternally, and yet some are not, does not mean that God’s will is too weak to accomplish what He desires—neither does the fact that all people are not saved temporally with peace and welfare, mean that God’s will is weaker than the evil that assaults our daily lives.

The problem is that Luther’s conclusion: “If our will hinders God’s will, it must be stronger than God’s will, and that which he wills need not occur, if we are not willing,” presents God’s will only in the manner of the Law. It is certainly true that God’s will is stronger than ours, but this is not the thrust of 1 Timothy 2:4 in the will of God for all men to be saved. The simple reason is that when God is bringing men to faith in Christ, God works through the Gospel, not through coercion, and thus can be and is resisted. According to Green, Luther also states this, that man has a will to reject salvation and that God does not force them to be saved (Green 64-5). Consequently, although man’s will is certainly not free—as faith in Christ and salvation come completely as a gift—the human will can reject the Gospel which is given, because God does not force salvation upon the unwilling. It must here be asserted for clarity that this does not imply an inherent difference in quality between believers and unbelievers, such that God elected the faithful in view of their faith (intuitu fidei). Rather, salvation for all men is willed by God, and He freely gives out this knowledge of the truth to all who would receive it, and His elect are saved completely by grace, whereas the unbelievers are condemned on their own fault, not because God predestined them for damnation.


Stuart Floyd said...

Luther's interpretation is interesting, temporal salvation vs. eternal salvation. Thank you for your exposition on his commentary. It got me thinking.. so I looked up the passage to see its use in the BoC. It is not there. Apparently this verse is not a sedes doctrinae, a clear Scriptural passage by which we might interpret the less clear. Rather, in the Epitome XI on Election for instance, the following passages are used: Rom. 11:32, Ezek. 18:23, 33:11, 2 Peter 3:9, and 1 John 2:2. Perhaps the 2 Peter verse comes closest in verbiage to the 1 Timothy passage. I wonder how Luther treats this passage?

"Consequently, although man’s will is certainly not free—as faith in Christ and salvation come completely as a gift—the human will can reject the Gospel which is given, because God does not force salvation upon the unwilling."

This has always troubled me.. who is not 'unwilling'?

Claud C said...

When Martin Luther was asked what we contribute to our salvation, he said, “Sin and resistance.”