Last Updated on June 2, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 560
The Concept of Free Will
On the Freedom of the Will by Desiderius Erasmus is part of his polemic against Martin Luther, who advocated for the idea of the “bondage of the will” in his proposal for radical reformations of Christian doctrine. Luther believed that all humanity was subject to...
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The Concept of Free Will
On the Freedom of the Will by Desiderius Erasmus is part of his polemic against Martin Luther, who advocated for the idea of the “bondage of the will” in his proposal for radical reformations of Christian doctrine. Luther believed that all humanity was subject to the absolute and unwavering will of God. Thus, the faithful, in their dedication to God, submitted wholly and completely to divine will and had no individual will of their own; this complete surrender of individual will was, Luther argued, in itself a demonstration of faith.
Erasmus, on the other hand, protested against the idea that the individual had no free will. He reasoned that if humans were denied a will independent of the will of God, it removed the onus of responsibility from the individual; a person could be wholly good or wholly evil, but in either case, if that person had no individual will, his actions were inevitable and unavoidable. Erasmus argued that this even cheapened the idea of faith, in that the faithful didn’t choose to be faithful but were rather willed to be faithful by God. This fundamental question that considered the omnipotent, all-knowing nature of a Christian God and the extent to which individuals could exert freedom of will in light of this fact was a point of major doctrinal debate (which continues to this day).
Biblical Translation and Interpretation
While arguing for the idea of the freedom of humanity’s will, Erasmus criticizes his Lutheran opponents for their literal interpretation of the Scriptures. He preferred an allegorical and contextual approach to the Bible. He sets forth a number of illustrations that show the absurdity of a narrow understanding of biblical passages. For example, he states,
Obviously the subsequent remarks of the Evangelist contain an hyperbole, i. e. an oratorical exaggeration, “As for you, the very hairs of your head are all numbered” (Matthew 10:30). How much hair falls daily to the ground; is it also counted? So, what is the purpose of this hyperbole? Obviously that which follows it, “Therefore, do not be afraid” (Matthew 10:21). Just as these modes of expression have the purpose to remove the fear of man and to strengthen his trust in God, without whose providence nothing happens, so the above quotations do not purport to abolish the free will, but to deter us from arrogance which the Lord hates.
Thus, by pointing out the hyperbole and metaphor that is used to convey meaning, Erasmus cautions against interpreting doctrine along the lines of literal absolutes. With the advent of Luther’s translation of the Bible, the idea of scriptural interpretation was expanded to include work that was performed outside of the strict doctrines of the Catholic Church (the performance of Mass, at the time, was restricted to Latin—a practice that wasn’t changed until well into the twentieth century).
While Erasmus was not opposed to Biblical translation, he was concerned with the implications of interpretation that was performed without the intermediary of Biblical scholars who had devoted years of study to examine the subtleties of language that were apparent in the holy texts. Here, the fundamental difference between Erasmus and Luther is elucidated; while both men were advocates for reformations within the Catholic Church, Erasmus ultimately defended traditional doctrine and the role of the church as an interpretive intermediary for Biblical texts.
Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 356
On the Freedom of the Will raises a crucial theological question: To what extent, if any, does human merit contribute to salvation? By ascribing a greater role to divine grace and a lesser one to free will and human effort, Erasmus hoped to produce a compromise that would be equally acceptable to both Lutherans and orthodox Catholics. Although he clearly disagreed with Luther in substantial ways, he did not deny that Luther had some valid arguments. In particular, he praised the German reformer’s fundamental belief that Christians must place their entire trust in God and not rely on their own merit for salvation; but he also felt that Luther was wrong to deny completely the soteriological importance of free will.
What disturbed Erasmus most, however, was the virulent, uncompromising nature of Luther’s campaign against the tradition and authority of the Catholic Church. As he stated in his introductory remarks to On the Freedom of the Will, some cures are simply more harmful than the afflictions they seek to remedy. Like Luther, he felt that moral corruption had seriously compromised the integrity of the Catholic Church at all levels, yet he did not believe that open confrontation would contribute to meaningful reform. If there was going to be a debate, he felt it should be conducted with moderation and evangelical mildness.
The debate opposing Erasmus and Luther on free will did not end there, nor did it remain a polite exchange of ideas as Erasmus clearly had hoped. Confident that truth was on their side, the Lutherans and other Protestant groups persisted in their defiance of Catholic authority. In December of 1525, Luther replied to the Dutch humanist’s criticism by publishing his De servo arbitrio (Martin Luther on the Bondage of the Will, 1823). The work was a stark rebuttal of Erasmus’s views on free will, salvation, foreknowledge, the origin of evil, and the authority of the Catholic Church. This prompted Erasmus to reaffirm his critique of Luther doctrine, this time with rancorous venom, in a two-part treatise titled Hyperaspistes (1526-1527; English translation, 1999 and 2000). By that point in time, all hope of reconciliation had vanished.