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Luther's The Bondage of the Will
Erasmus' On the Freedom of the Will

Martyn McGeown


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 conclusion.

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 writes,

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 of it:

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 reader:

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 interpretation.

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. 125).

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. 192).

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. 123).

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 ceremonial law.

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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