Analysis

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Desiderius Erasmus wrote On the Freedom of the Will at the request of his countryman Pope Adrian VI, who desired some form of resolution to the fundamental disagreements that had plagued the church ever since Luther had nailed his ninety-five complaints to the church door in Wittenberg in 1517. Unsurprisingly, the essay therefore has a reconciliatory tone—with none of the venom that was characteristic of Erasmus’s later responses to Luther—and even has occasional affirmations delivered by the Dutchman on certain Lutheran doctrines.

The principle disagreement Erasmus has with Luther concerns the efficacy of human free will: whether people can actively make decisions or whether such decisions are predestined (as Luther had asserted), with virtuous actions only being possible by means of divine grace. Erasmus does not champion the orthodox Catholic position that Luther opposed—namely that humans were at liberty to decide, even in the smallest of life’s choices, the path of good or of evil.

Erasmus’s tripartite understanding of human action includes the idea that knowing what is good and performing what is good is only achievable through grace. However, willing what is good comes down to human merit. By this means, Erasmus argues, one can recognize the importance of one’s total surrender to God—one of the Lutheran doctrines of which Erasmus approved—while also allowing for some degree of human responsibility. This human involvement was considered vital in society to Erasmus; he believed that a lack of responsibility would lead to a breakdown in moral order.

Erasmus was also able to agree with Luther on the supremacy of the Bible in informing Christian teachings, but he did contest Luther’s radical humanist assertion that one's own mind was a better instructor on scriptures than the collected writings of all former Catholic theologians. In doing this, he appeals to the virtue of humility that lies at the center of Christian teaching, asserting that no one individual could possibly hold a perfect understanding of God’s will. He states that even if they should never be considered equivalent with the Bible, the work of theologians provides valuable insights that could inform individual interpretations of scripture.

Erasmus’s attempts to reconcile the two divergent groups within Christendom failed: the conflict between these groups continued to escalate over the subsequent decades and centuries. His essay also received a scathing response from Luther, who did not share Erasmus’s belief that mild and tolerant debate should prevail in scholarly discourse.

However, On the Freedom of the Will undoubtedly influenced thinkers of later centuries, both Catholic and Protestant. The balance that Erasmus sought concerning the nature of free will was appealing to those who saw the notion of "double predestination" (as championed in later centuries by Calvinists) as unreasonable, and it was also appealing to those who thought that radical humanist movements afforded too little influence to divine intervention.

Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 63

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.

Free Will and Predestination

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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 God’s revealed truths and he asks his readers how a single person, such as Luther, could be so haughty as to believe that he alone definitely knew how God wanted people to interpret the Bible. Erasmus then argues that even if Luther were correct in asserting that people possess no free will and that all happens as a result of absolute necessity, such theories should not be shared with the general public because it might encourage amoral people to yield to temptation and violate God’s commandments. Discussions about predestination might be harmless in a theology class, but they might have an unintended negative effect on those who are looking for any excuse to yield to their base instincts. Erasmus is very careful to suggest that Luther would certainly not want his theological views to harm society.

Erasmus then discussed rather inflexible positions by Luther, who claimed that Christians should ignore fifteen centuries of Christian writings and rely solely on their own judgment in interpreting the Bible. Erasmus suggests that such an approach is unwise because it prevents people from appreciating insights into the meanings of the Bible by such respected and learned theologians as Saints John Chrysostom, Augustine, Jerome, and Thomas Aquinas. Erasmus wonders why it is sensible to conclude that every Christian theologian had misinterpreted the Bible whereas Luther’s readings are the only ones with which one should agree. Despite his great respect for the fathers of the Church, Erasmus agrees to play by Luther’s rules and base his analysis of free will solely on the canonical works of the Old and New Testaments.

Grace

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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 between God’s foreknowledge of future events and Luther’s belief in predestination. God may well know that certain evil men and women will sin egregiously, but God does not force them to do that which displeases him. This was an important distinction for Erasmus, but in his treatise On the Bondage of the Will, Luther affirmed that such a distinction was meaningless.

Despite the very real differences between Catholic theologians and Luther, Erasmus very much wanted to put an end to the schism. In his chapter on Luther’s proofs against free will, he complements Luther several times. Erasmus argues that Luther’s analysis of the basic weakness of human nature is insightful and agrees with Luther’s interpretation of Saint Paul’s comment “If I do not have love, I am nothing” in 1 Corinthians 13:2, but Erasmus adds that love (agap in Greek) is the greatest of all gifts or graces from God because it enables people to make the right moral choices and leads them to eternal life in heaven. Erasmus firmly believed that it was possible to reconcile Luther’s comments on God’s omnipotence with the reality of free will. Erasmus argues that Luther had not properly defined the complex relationship between divine power and human freedom when he claimed that because God is omnipotent, men and women have no real free will as concerns their eternal lives. Erasmus suggested the need for a moderate position that would reconcile Catholicism and Lutheranism and thus reestablish order and unity in Christianity. Catholics believed in free will whereas Luther and his followers believed with equal fervor in the efficacy of grace. A simple or moderate solution would be to state that grace enriches and does not destroy free will. Erasmus expressed his effort to reconcile Catholic and Lutheran positions in these terms: “Man is able to accomplish all things, if God’s grace helps him.”

Pope Adrian VI hoped that Erasmus would somehow succeed in persuading Luther and numerous Catholic theologians to put an end to their bickering and to consider the general welfare of all Christians. Despite his best efforts to develop a moderate position that would please both Lutherans and Catholics, Erasmus only succeeded in angering both groups. Just one year after the publication of Erasmus’s treatise on free will, Luther published his On the Bondage of the Will, which was four times longer than Erasmus’s essay. Luther accused Erasmus of having distorted the meaning of numerous biblical passages and he rejected Erasmus’s efforts to reconcile grace with free will. Numerous Catholic theologians criticized Erasmus for not having affirmed that Luther was completely wrong on the question of free will. Both Catholic and Lutheran positions hardened. Although Erasmus later argued that Catholics and Lutherans should “tolerate” each other, few of his contemporaries felt that this schism could be ended. Erasmus was tolerant of those with whom he disagreed, but his tolerance was not shared by most of the Catholic and Lutheran theologians of his day.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 610

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 look at Erasmus’s influence in religious thought.

Halkin, Léon E. Erasmus: A Critical Biography. Translated by John Tonkin. Oxford: Blackwell, 1993. First issued in 1987, Halkin’s study aims to understand Erasmus through Erasmus; hence, he quotes extensively from his works, including his letters, so readers can trace Erasmus’s intellectual and spiritual journey and learn of his successes, struggles, ambitions, and setbacks.

Huizinga, Johan. Erasmus and the Age of Reformation. Translated by F. Hopman. New York: Harper, 1957. Originally published as Erasmus of Rotterdam in 1924, this biography has worn well. Not only was Huizinga a recognized expert on Erasmus’s era, but he also understood his subject’s psychology as few others have.

McConica, James K. Erasmus. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. McConica’s life of Erasmus concentrates on his spiritual and intellectual development by examining his contributions to education, to biblical scholarship, and to the study of the Church fathers.

Mangan, John Joseph. Life, Character, and Influence of Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam. 2 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1927. Although some of its interpretations are dated, this biography prints translations of many of Erasmus’s writings, especially the letters. Its last chapter investigates Erasmus’s later influence as indicated by editions and translations of his works.

Phillips, Margaret Mann. Erasmus and the Northern Renaissance. London: English Universities Press, 1949. Rev. ed. Woodbridge, England: Boydell Press, 1981. This somewhat elementary introduction to Erasmus and his age are useful for beginning students of the Renaissance.

Rummel, Erika. Erasmus. New York: Continuum, 2004. A general study of Erasmus’s views on pedagogy, society, religion; his role as a biblical scholar; and his opposition to Luther.

Schoeck, R. J. Erasmus of Europe. 2 vols. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 1990 and 1993. Follows Erasmus through every stage of his life; the second volume includes a detailed chapter on the free will debate.

Smith, Preserved. Erasmus: A Study of His Life, Ideals, and Place in History. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1962. This reprint of a scholarly life with its bibliography of nineteenth and earlier twentieth century studies chiefly by European scholars was issued in 1923. Although less useful on Erasmus as humanist, it views him as champion of “undogmatic Christianity” and emphasizes his ideas’ relationship with those of Protestant reformers.

Tracy, James D. Erasmus of the Low Countries. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. A readable, clear account of Erasmus’s life and thoughts.

Wengert, Timothy J. Human Freedom, Christian Righteousness: Philip Melanchthon’s Exegetical Dispute with Erasmus of Rotterdam. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Compares Erasmus’s and Philip Melanchthon’s opposing views on the question of human freedom.

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