With the publication in 1516 of his critical edition of the New Testament in Greek and his accompanying Latin translation, Desiderius Erasmus established his expertise in the field of biblical exegesis. His annotation of the New Testament also demonstrated that he had effectively used the writings of numerous Church fathers in order to support traditional Catholic interpretations of both the New and Old Testaments.
German monk Martin Luther presented his belief in predestination both in the ninety-five theses that he placed in 1517 on the main door of the Cathedral of Wittenberg and his assertions published in 1521. In these works, Luther stated that it was meaningless to talk about free will because everything takes place in conformity with God’s intentions. Luther’s break with the Roman Catholic Church created a schism in Christianity.
In 1521, the newly elected Pope Adrian VI, who like Erasmus was from Holland, asked Erasmus to attempt to reestablish Christian unity by writing a well-organized treatise in which the contentious issue of free will would be carefully and calmly analyzed. After some hesitation, Erasmus agreed to compose such a treatise, which was published in 1524 as On the Freedom of the Will. Just one year later, Martin Luther published his treatise De Servo Arbitrio (1525; On the Bondage of the Will, 1823) in which he systematically criticized Erasmus’s arguments in favor of the reality of free will. The publication of these two treatises served to define very clearly incompatible positions between Catholics and Lutherans on the contentious issues of free will and grace.
In the preface to his treatise on free will, Erasmus reminds readers that he has an open mind and is skeptical about people who claim that they alone possess absolute truth. As a Christian, he firmly believed that the Bible contained...
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In two parallel chapters, Erasmus explains very clearly that numerous texts from the Old and New Testaments demonstrate that God had granted men and women the freedom to choose between good and evil. Erasmus wonders if it would have been fair for God to have expelled Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden if they had not been responsible at all for their sins. No Christian would presume that God was cruel and punished people for no justifiable reason. Luther had claimed that virtuous people received grace, which enabled them to do good deeds whereas sinners were denied this necessary grace.
Erasmus argues that grace is a complex concept that people can never fully understand. He indicates that there are, in fact, four types of grace. The first type of grace is common sense, which discourages people from doing that which is harmful to themselves or their neighbors. The second type of grace encourages sinners to repent and reform their lives. The third type of grace, which Erasmus calls efficient or cooperative grace, leads men and women toward the love of God, and the final grace makes possible eternal salvation. An orthodox Christian belief is that Christ so loved all people that he willingly accepted a painful death on the cross so that everyone could be saved. Erasmus suggests that God loves people and gives them many forms of help and assistance so that they can be saved, but God does not force people to choose good over evil. People are free to lead a virtuous or a rakish life. Erasmus asks his readers if sin can mean anything if people are not at all free to resist temptation. Erasmus then explains that those biblical passages that seem to deny the efficacy of free will can nevertheless be interpreted so that they are compatible with freedom of choice.
Exodus 9:12 states that God “made the Pharaoh obstinate.” The Egyptian Pharaoh who enslaved the Jews could, however, have resisted his evil tendencies and treated the Jews with human dignity. It would be preposterous to claim that God had forced the Pharaoh to commit evil actions. Erasmus argues that it is important to distinguish...
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Sources for Further Study
Augustijn, Cornelis. Erasmus: His Life, Works, and Influence. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991. A comprehensive biography and analysis of the major works; includes detailed discussion of Erasmus’s debate on the freedom of the will.
DeMolen, Richard L., ed. Essays on the Works of Erasmus. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1978. DeMolen assembles a collection of fourteen essays by leading scholars on the individual works of Erasmus in order to provide an interpretation of a central theme in each work.
Dickens, A. G. Erasmus the Reformer. London: Mandarin, 1995. An examination of Erasmus’s life, work, and legacy.
Faludy, George. Erasmus of Rotterdam. London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1970. This excellent general reader’s biography explains the historical and intellectual contexts of Erasmus’s work clearly. Although it uses few notes, it displays a thorough grasp of scholarship.
Forde, Gerhard O. The Captivation of the Will: Luther Versus Erasmus on Freedom and Bondage. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2005. Reviews the major points of contention between Luther and Erasmus.
Friesen, Abraham. Erasmus, the Anabaptists, and the Great Commission. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1998. A...
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