Bondage of the Will
the Freedom of the Will
Erasmus' On the Freedom of the Will (FW),
otherwise known as the Diatribe, does not make a strong case for his
thesis that man’s will has a power whereby he can choose good.1
Erasmus proceeds with caution, approaching the subject with hesitancy.
There is evidence that he did not relish writing the book. That it was not
his idea to write this work is clearly implied in the first section, where
he writes, "although he [i.e., Luther] has already been answered by more
than one writer, it seemed good to my friends that I should try my hand"
(FW, p. 35). In other words, his "friends" were the ones encouraging him.
Erasmus merely wishes to engage in a "temperate disputation" (FW, p. 36).
He has little zeal for a battle. He confesses that on this subject he has
"no fixed conviction, except that [he thinks] there to be a certain power
of free choice" (FW, p. 37). He is not concerned with making assertions
but pledges to play "the inquirer, not the dogmatist" (FW, p. 38). He
fails properly to define his terms, and is non-committal in his
Luther’s attitude to the subject is markedly different.
He shows no such hesitancy in discussing this topic. In his response,
The Bondage of the Will (BOW), he confesses that "it is more
gratifying for [him] to deal with this issue" than any other (BOW, p.
319).2 Compared to this subject, the Papacy, purgatory and
indulgences are mere "trifles" (BOW, p. 319). He commends Erasmus for
addressing this subject in particular for it is "the real thing, that is,
the essential issue … the hinge on which all turns and … the vital spot"
(BOW, p. 319). Accordingly, Luther enters the debate fully armed with the
Word of God. For him this is not an academic issue. The teaching of
freewill is a denial of the gospel of grace. For that reason he must
contend against it. Leave man with the idea that he has freewill and he
will not be ready to receive grace:
A man cannot be thoroughly humbled till he
realizes that his salvation is utterly beyond his own powers,
counsels, efforts, will and works, and depends absolutely on the
will, counsel, pleasure and work of Another—God alone … these
truths are published for the sake of the elect, that they may be
humbled and brought down to nothing, and so saved (BOW, p. 100).
Luther recognizes that the doctrine of the bound will
is part of sacred Scripture and as such ought to be proclaimed. It is an
impugning of God’s wisdom and of the authority of the Scriptures to
suggest that a discussion of these doctrines is harmful to the people. In
response to Erasmus’ plea that this issue not be discussed before the
common people, "before the gaze of a mixed multitude" (FW, p. 42), but
confined to the speculations of properly qualified theologians, Luther
For what you are saying is that there is no
information more useless than God’s Word! So your Creator must
learn from you, His creature, what may usefully be preached and
what not?" (BOW, p. 97).
On account of doctrinal assertions, in which Erasmus
confesses no delight (FW, p. 37), Erasmus complains that the Christian
world is in an "uproar" (FW, p. 97). Erasmus believes that for the sake of
peace and civil order certain doctrines should not be mentioned. "It is
not expedient to speak the truth to everybody at every time and in every
way," he writes (FW, p. 41). He regrets that the Reformation has been the
cause of unrest in Christendom. Luther criticizes Erasmus’ attitude. He
castigates Erasmus in these words: "You do not think it matters a scrap
what anyone believes anywhere, so long as the world is at peace" (BOW, p.
69). Moreover, he argues, the gospel is not to blame for civil unrest. The
gospel merely reveals the wickedness in men’s hearts, provoking a negative
reaction from the reprobate wicked, but saving the elect. Besides, the
gospel is worth defending even if the world is turned upside down because
I hold that a solemn and vital truth, of
eternal consequence, is at stake in this discussion; one so
crucial and fundamental that it ought to be maintained and
defended even to the cost of life, though as a result the whole
world should be, not just thrown into turmoil and uproar, but
shattered in chaos and reduced to nothingness (BOW, p. 90).
Erasmus’ conclusion is non-committal. He writes, "I
assert nothing, but have ‘made comparisons’" (quoted in BOW, p. 320).
Luther speaks with certainty, and clarity, and demands a response from the
Now I, in this book of mine, HAVE NOT "MADE
COMPARISONS," BUT HAVE ASSERTED, AND DO ASSERT; and I do not want
judgment to rest with anyone, but I urge all men to submit! (BOW,
p. 320, upper case letters in the original).
Apart from a marked contrast in their attitude to the
subject which they are debating, Luther and Erasmus differ in another
important issue: the Scriptures. They have different attitudes to the
Bible, its importance, its authority, its clarity, and the method of its
Erasmus argues that the Scriptures are unclear, and
that they cannot be allowed to decide the issue. Instead Erasmus appeals
to the "weighty authority" of the church fathers. He asks, "whether more
weight ought not to be ascribed to the previous judgment of so many
learned men, so many orthodox, so many saints, so many martyrs, so many
theologians old and new …" (FW, p. 43).
Luther will not tolerate the suggestion that the
Scriptures are unclear. Not will he accept the notion that only the Church
possesses the ability and the authority to interpret the Scriptures. "What
can the church settle that Scripture did not settle first?" (BOW, p. 69),
he asks. Rather, he defends the perspicuity of the Bible at some length.
For example, he writes,
It should be settled and fundamental, and most
firmly fixed in the minds of Christians, that the Holy Scriptures
are a spiritual light far brighter even than the sun (BOW, p.
To deny that the Scriptures are clear is to deny that
God can reveal His truth to us. Luther asks in a mocking tone,
If Scripture is obscure or equivocal, why need
it have been brought down to us by act of God? Surely we have
enough obscurity and uncertainty within ourselves, without our
obscurity, uncertainty and darkness being augmented from heaven!
(BOW, p. 128).
He ridicules the notion that the great theologians of
the church, to whose learning Erasmus wants to appeal, were mighty in the
Scriptures, if the Scriptures themselves are unclear:
They surely possessed a Scripture that was
clear; else what becomes of their admirable skill in the Holy
Scriptures? And what inconsiderate foolhardiness it would show, to
shed one’s blood over something obscure and uncertain … One of
your assertions must be false: either your verdict that they were
men to be admired for their skill in the sacred writings, and for
their life and martyrdom, or else your view that the Scripture is
not clear (BOW, pp. 134-135).
When a text poses a difficulty for Erasmus in his
defence of the doctrine of free will, he eschews its plain meaning, and
instead adopts the figurative and allegorical interpretations of Jerome or
Origen (e.g., on page 65 of FW he appeals to Origen three times).
Luther, in contrast, insists on the plain meaning of
the Bible unless the content obviously forbids it. He writes,
Everywhere we should stick to just the simple,
natural meaning of the words, as yielded by the rules of grammar
and the habits of speech that God has created among men … All
"figures" should rather be avoided, as being the quickest poison,
when Scripture itself does not absolutely require them (BOW, p.
Luther urges that the fathers be read with caution.
Where they "speak from the Spirit" (evidenced by the fact that they speak
in accordance with the Bible) they can be safely believed, but where they
"savour of the flesh" their conclusions ought to be rejected (BOW, p.
Especially abominated by Luther are the methods of
Jerome and Origen. Although Erasmus highly esteems these theologians of
antiquity, Luther writes,
Among all the ecclesiastical writers there are
scarcely any who have handled the words of God in a more absurd
and clumsy fashion than Origen and Jerome (BOW, p. 195).
Luther censures Jerome’s "tomfooleries" (BOW, p. 247),
his "nonsense" (BOW, p. 239), and accuses Jerome "and his friend Origen"
of being "the inventors of [that] pestilent practice of paying no heed to
the simple sense of Scripture" (BOW, p. 240). At one point he even states
that "unless extraordinary grace has interposed, Jerome deserved hell
rather than heaven" (BOW, p. 284). This is a reference to Jerome’s error
that the works excluded from justification are merely those of the
One striking example of Erasmus’ faulty hermeneutic is
his approval of Jerome’s opinion that "things have a force in Paul which
they do not possess in their own places" (quoted in BOW, p. 223). He
argues that Paul’s quotations in Romans 9 from Genesis ("the elder shall
serve the younger") and Malachi ("Esau have I hated") speak only of
temporal blessings (FW, p. 69), thereby implying that the apostle reads
too much into the Old Testament passages he quotes. Luther rebukes Erasmus
for adopting Jerome’s "numerous impieties" (BOW, p. 223) and points out
the implications of such an approach:
Suppose it is true that this passage does not
relate to man’s salvation (I will discuss that later) are we to
imagine that there is no point at all in Paul’s citation of it?
Shall we represent Paul as making a fool and a laughing-stock of
himself in so serious a discussion? … This is just to say that
when Paul lays down the foundations of Christian doctrine, he does
nothing but corrupt the Divine Scriptures, and delude the souls of
the faithful, with an idea conceived in his own brain, and
violently thrust into those Scriptures! (BOW, p. 223).
Therefore, thunders Luther, "Let him be anathema, who
says that ‘things have a force in Paul which they do not possess in their
own places!'" (BOW, p. 223).
Luther considers Erasmus’ book the most "incompetent"
book on the subject which he had ever seen, albeit written in elegant
language (BOW, p. 79). It contains the same arguments that the enemies of
God’s sovereign grace have always used against the gospel. For example,
Erasmus appeals to the presence of conditional sentences, and commands in
Scripture as proof that man has a freewill which can do good, respond to
God and accept the gospel: "What end, he asks, do all the myriad
commandments serve if it is not possible for a man in any way to keep what
is commanded?" (FW, p. 57). Luther explains that imperatives are not
indicatives, and that conditional clauses are in the subjunctive mood,
something even schoolboys know (BOW, pp. 151, 159). The exposure of such a
basic blunder in grammar must have stung the erudite scholar, coming as it
did from an uncultivated German of peasant roots. Furthermore, if the
presence of commands in Scripture implies a power in man’s will to obey,
Erasmus proves too much. Luther ridicules him for this (BOW, p. 137) since
Erasmus had pledged to argue for the "more plausible view" that the will
of man can do nothing without grace, but by implication argues for a will
which has "entire, plenary and abundant power to keep the commandments"
(BOW, p. 154). Luther grows weary of having continually to remind Erasmus
that he had initially said that "the human will is wholly ineffective
without grace" (BOW, p. 141; cf. pp. 160, 171, 178, etc.).
Luther demolishes all of Erasmus’ arguments from the
Scriptures. He complains that Erasmus "grows more stupid" (BOW, p. 165) as
the book progresses; he calls Erasmus "sleepy-headed" (BOW, p. 166) and at
one point he questions Erasmus’ sanity: "Do you think the Diatribe was
quite sober, or in its right mind when it wrote this?" (BOW, p. 269).
Luther’s The Bondage of the Will is obviously superior
to Erasmus’ Diatribe. The former is a vigorous, spirited defence of the
gospel. It bristles with lively and vivid language and demonstrates a
skilful use of the Scriptures. Erasmus’ book by contrast is unworthy of
one who, Luther concedes, is "a great man, adorned with many of God’s
noblest gifts—wit, learning, and an almost miraculous eloquence" (BOW, p.
319). It would have been better for Erasmus if he had confined himself to
his studies of the classics in which he excelled.
1See Erasmus, On the Freedom of the Will
in Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation, eds. E. Gordon Rupp
and Philip S. Watson, Library of Christian Classics, Ichthus Edition, vol.
17 (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1969).
2See Martin Luther, The Bondage of the
Will, trans J. I. Packer and O. R. Johnston (USA: Baker, 1957).
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