On the Freedom of the Will

by Desiderius Erasmus
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Last Updated on June 2, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 454

Erasmus begins On the Freedom of the Will with the following quotation:

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Among the difficulties, of which not a few pop up in Holy Scripture, there is hardly a more tangled labyrinth than “free choice,” for it is a subject that has long exercised the minds of philosophers.

Free will, or “free choice,” as Erasmus calls it, is the subject of a spirited debate between Erasmus and Martin Luther. Essentially, Erasmus rejected the idea that human beings were predestined by God for salvation or damnation. This idea had recently been defended by Martin Luther and many of his followers, and Erasmus’s essay on free will is a explicit rejoinder to this concept. In this passage, he acknowledges that the debate on free will is one that is fundamental to Western philosophy, not just to Christian theology. For both Erasmus and Luther, it is a central aspect of man’s relationship with God.

Suppose for a moment that it were true that... “God works in us good and evil, and rewards his own good works in us, and punishes his evil works in us”; what a window to impiety would the public avowal of such an opinion open to countless morals!

Here, Erasmus is arguing that if Luther’s argument against free will is followed to its logical conclusion, then there is really nothing keeping people from behaving as they would like. All sorts of evil could be justified by saying, in a sense, “God made me do it.” Without free will, there is no responsibility, and without responsibility, Erasmus argues, God would be arbitrarily punishing people who had no control over their actions. People could not possibly love such a capricious God, and there would be no incentive or reward for just and right behavior, nor even for faith—which Luther claimed was essential to salvation.

Finally, Erasmus discusses the importance of free will to his view of Christianity:

This very power of the soul, with which a man embraces good when he knows it, and turns away from its opposite, is a gift of the Creator who might have made him a frog instead of a man.

Here, Erasmus makes an argument common to the Renaissance humanists, whose work he had read. Free will, he argues, is a gift from God. It is the thing that makes people what they are and separates them from animals. In other words, it is the image of God in man. Erasmus goes on to devote a great deal of his work to supporting this argument, using both the Old and New Testaments.

These quotations represent the core principles at stake in the debate between Erasmus and Luther, at least seen from the perspective of Erasmus.

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