On the Freedom of the Will

by Desiderius Erasmus

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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 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.

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