On the Freedom of the Will Summary
On the Freedom of the Will by Desiderius Erasmus is a theological work written in 1524. It is a manifestation of the ideological dispute between Erasmus and Martin Luther. Points of contention between the two men included divine justice, God’s knowledge (omniscience), and God’s power (omnipotence). Martin Luther and his supporters claimed that God's knowledge and power are almighty, and that because of this, humans do not possess free will and are instead ruled by divine predestination.
Luther’s argument can be outlined as follows: first, God knows everything, including the future, and this knowledge is infallible; second, God is all powerful and causes everything to happen; and third, because God knows what will happen in the future and this knowledge cannot be wrong, then what He sees will happen due to his will.
Erasmus, however, argues that just because God knows something is going to happen, it doesn’t mean that God causes it to happen. God is familiar with the cosmos, as its Creator, and so He is able to predict accurately what will happen in the cosmos. This prediction, however, does not have to be according to His will.
Erasmus also argues that the idea of humans having no free will would negate the purpose of the Ten Commandments and divine justice. If humans have no control over their actions, then any guidelines or warnings are useless. Further, there can be no just eternal reward or punishment if people are not in control over their actions but are instead acting as a result of predestination.
It is important to note that Erasmus is not at all trying to disempower God. He actually comes to the conclusion that God is able to interfere in many areas and aspects of the cosmos, including human affairs, but decides not to. His responsibility for whatever happens is thus not because He actively decides how things should happen, but because He passively allows things to happen on their own.
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 salvation.
Luther, says Erasmus, cast aside the...
(The entire section is 1,161 words.)