On the Freedom of the Will Summary

Overview (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

During the early days of the Reformation, many observers considered Desiderius Erasmus a natural ally of Martin Luther. The two men shared a common interest in evangelical humanism, and they voiced similar concerns regarding institutional abuses within the Catholic Church. Erasmus, however, disagreed with Luther on fundamental theological questions and wanted no part in the German reformer’s rebellion against authority. Following the advice of friends and influential patrons, he wrote On the Freedom of the Will to refute article 36 of Luther’s incendiary Assertio omnium articulorum Martini Lutheri per bullam Leonis X novissimam damnatorum (1520; article 36 has been translated as An Assertion of All the Articles of Martin Luther Which Were Quite Recently Condemned by a Bull of Leo X, Article 36, 1999). By limiting his critique mainly to that one article, Erasmus hoped to avoid a harsh confrontation with Luther and, at the same time, to demonstrate his own allegiance to Rome. In article 36, Luther characterized free will as “a fiction among real things” and “a name with no reality.”

Erasmus describes the issue of free will as one of the most impenetrable labyrinths to be found in Holy Scripture. In recent years, he adds, it has become a subject of mild debate between Andreas Bodenstein of Karlstadt and Johann Maier of Eck, and now Luther, invoking the authority of John Wyclif, has stirred it up again with greater vehemence. While some things in Holy Scripture are perfectly clear, others such as the precise nature of the Trinity or the finer points of the Immaculate Conception are not. In such instances, excessive subtlety can serve only as a prelude to pointless theoretical quarrels. Erasmus believes, in contrast to Luther, that “a certain power of free will does exist.” The question of free will is also closely linked to salvation:By “free will” here we understand a power of the human will by which man may be able to direct himself toward, or turn away from, what leads to eternal...

(The entire section is 833 words.)