Luther: Right or Wrong?

Dear Reader,

Below I provide a link and a free copy of a once published but now out of print book that will be primarily of interest to Catholics and Protestants, but also to Orthodox readers. I recommend the book to you because after over thirty years of reading in Theology, Philosophy and Church history, it remains the single best book to get clear as to some of the central questions and disputes of the Reformation. So here is a little bit of information about the book. (HT to Jeff Turko for bringing this to my attention.) I would rank it among the top ten theological works with respect to motivating changes to my theological thinking over my lifetime. There is simply no better book on the topic.

(https://books.google.com/books/about/Luther_Right_Or_Wrong.html?id=KaRAAAAAIAAJ )

To download the PDF from Google, go to the upper right gasket widget, click download PDF.)

The title is, “Luther: Right or Wrong?-An Ecumenical-theological Study of Luther’s Major Work, The Bondage of the Will. The author is Harry McSorley.

It is an older work and a little bit of history is necessary to show its initial value. McSorely was a Catholic academic. This might be off-putting to Protestant readers, but there are some other facts that should be taken note of. McSorely was approached by both Fortress-Augsburg Press (Lutheran) and Newman Press (Catholic) to write the book. They jointly funded his research for ten years. The book is consequently the result of long and sustained research on the topic. Both publishers wanted to produce something for the 500 year anniversary for the publication of Luther’s seminal work, the Bondage of the Will. McSorely was approached due to his academic credentials, and even though he was Catholic, he was accepted by both sides as a fair assessor of information. In this way and for these reasons the book has a unique place.

What is more, the book is clear and precise. It begins with clear statements as to just what the question under dispute was, and where the state of historical research was at the time of the writing of the book. It then precedes to examine the different biblical notions of freedom and bondage and how these were understood in the Latin West prior to Augustine, in Augustine over the course of his career, and up through some of the Medievals just prior to Luther. The work then proceeds to examine Luther’s early views on the question of the unfree will and his more mature position and then in light of Tridentine decisions.

Because the material principle of the Reformation, justification by faith alone (sola fide) depends in large measure on the concept of the unfree will, McSorely’s examination is crucial to understanding what sola fide actually means and bears on whether the claim is true, even though the work doesn’t directly address that question. Unless you are going to romp through the last 50 years of academic journal articles, symposiums and such, there is simply no better or higher quality work than McSoreley’s book. This is one book that has by and large stood the test of time.

I recommend the work because it is clear to me that many  are unclear as to what the disputes in the Reformation were fundamentally about. And if we aren’t clear about what is under dispute, then we are less likely to find out the truth of the matter.

4 comments

  1. Thank you for this recommendation! Your statement “it is clear to me that many are unclear as to what the disputes in the Reformation were fundamentally about” resonated with me. When I started to investigate the controversy between Luther and the Roman Catholic Church I saw accusations on both sides of misinterpretation/misrepresentation, so I hope this can help clear some of that confusion for me!

  2. It’s a mistake from the get-go to think in terms of “Luther vs. Rome” — though that’s common enough.

    For clarity’s sake, one should begin with the Augsburg Confession and its Apology. These documents are a much more historically informed and worthwhile approach to the matter. You can read the Augsburg Confession in less than an hour, but I wonder how many Roman Catholic polemicists have ever done that (sigh). Did Belloc, for example?

    Fagerberg’s A New Look at the Lutheran Confessions is a readable, 320-page exposition of what the Confessions confess, their relation to patristic and medieval theology, etc.

  3. Dale,

    I suppose I disagree. The Confession reads like any other polemical doctrinal statement of the time. it tends to manifest the same kinds of conceptual and historical confusion as lots of other documents.

    And historically speaking, Luther was the mouthpiece so the framing seems apt, at least for the purposes of the book. In addition, Luther and Lutherans framed th ematter that way in the past.

    That said, have your read McSorely to compare with Fagerberg’s?

  4. Nope. I was expressing a little weariness with the usual moves of these discussions. They run into the sand with nobody much the wiser, I suppose. For me, as an inquirer many years ago from a non-Lutheran background, the breakthrough came with the reading especially of (select material in) Chemnitz’s Examination of the Council of Trent. I’m not saying McSorley shouldn’t have written the book. But it’s probably not the place for investigation of Lutheran-Roman Catholic differences — a topic I’m no longer interested in much — to start. Fagerberg’s book has been represented to me as a good relatively brief presentation of what Lutherans confess. I haven’t read it yet.

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