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Luther, Erasmus, and the Bondage of the Will (1)

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This article first appeared in the October 15, 2001 issue of the Standard Bearer (vol.78, No.2) in a special Reformation issue on Martin Luther and was written by Prof. Russell Dykstra, professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.

Luther, Erasmus, and the Bondage of the Will (1)

Certainly the single best-known work of Martin Luther is The Bondage of the Will. This masterpiece deserves the honorable position it holds not only in the body of Luther's works, but also in the writings of all the Reformers. It sets forth the truth of God's sovereignty in salvation, and eliminates any possibility that man contributed to his own salvation. This is the heart of Luther's theology. This is the heart of the great Reformation. And this is the heart of the Reformed truth still today.

That The Bondage of the Will should be written is obviously due to the sovereign providence of God. Early on in the conflict Luther came to the conviction that Rome's teaching on man's will was wrong, and he set forth his views in brief. Already in 1518 in the Heidelberg Disputation Luther affirmed that "since the fall of Adam, or after actual sin, free will exists only in name, and when it does what it can it commits sin." This was one of the forty-one articles condemned by Pope Leo X in 1520. In response, Luther wrote An Assertion of all the Articles of Martin Luther Condemned by the Latest Bull of Leo X.¹ In this work Luther is even stronger. He writes,

So it is necessary to retract this article. For I was wrong in saying that free choice before grace is a reality only in name. I should have said simply: free choice is in reality a fiction, or a name without reality. For no one has it in his power to think a good or a bad thought, but everything (as Wycliffe's article condemned at Constance rightly teaches) happens by absolute necessity.

And so it might have remained, were it not for God sovereignly directing the events of the Reformation, and forcing Luther to develop this truth more fully and explicitly.The means God used to bring this about was primarily one man, namely, Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam. Erasmus was an older contemporary of Luther who is sometimes wrongly associated with the Reformation. He was a world-renowned Renaissance scholar whom God used in various ways to serve the cause of the Reformation. Erasmus prepared a scholarly Greek text of the New Testament which was widely used by the Reformers. He was vociferous in his criticism of the immorality and ignorance of the clergy of his day. He was a man of high reputation, very much interested in the church being reformed morally, and to that end he promoted education and scholarship. When Luther's works spread like wildfire across Europe, the world watched intently to see whether Erasmus would throw his support to Luther's cause.

Luther and Erasmus were acquainted with each other before the conflict. A half a year before he posted the ninety-five theses in Wittenberg, Luther wrote in a personal letter:

I am at present reading our Erasmus, but my heart recoils more and more from him. But one thing I admire is, that he constantly and learnedly accuses not only the monks, but the priests, of a lazy, deep-rooted ignorance.

Only, I fear he does not spread Christ and God's grace sufficiently abroad, of which he knows very little. The human is to him of more importance than the divine....

And, in a portent of what was to come, he added, "Those who ascribe something to man's freedom of will regard those things differently from those who know only God's free grace."

Yet Luther coveted the support of Erasmus for his cause, and wrote a flattering letter to Erasmus in 1519, obviously hoping to establish some relationship with the elder scholar. Erasmus' reply to Luther was cordial. He began, "Best greetings, most beloved brother in Christ. Your letter was most welcome to me, displaying a shrewd wit and breathing Christian spirit." However, if Luther was hoping that Erasmus would commit himself to Luther's cause, he would be disappointed. Erasmus stated to Luther that he kept himself "as far as possible neutral, the better to assist the flower of learning."

It would become increasingly evident that Erasmus and Luther were committed to two different, and even antagonistic, causes. The decisive issue would be the doctrine at the heart of the Reformation—the doctrine of sovereign grace. The debate arose in connection with Luther's rejection of a free will in fallen man. Erasmus reacted against that (in 1524) with a work entitled A Diatribe or Discourse on Free Will in which he defended the ability of fallen man to will the good, rejecting Luther's position. Luther's classic work, The Bondage of the Will, was written over against Erasmus. Erasmus, on his part, was furious, and turned against Luther and the Reformation completely.

There is value in examining the arguments that Erasmus used to defend the view of a free will in man. They are relevant because of the fact that The Bondage of the Will was a painstaking refutation of Erasmus' work. Secondly, Erasmus' work is a good representation of the theology of the Romish church against which Luther battled. Thirdly, Erasmus' arguments are significant because they have been pressed into service by Arminians of every stripe and are used even to the present day.

Even the tone of Erasmus' work on the free will of man is one adopted by enemies of sovereign grace throughout history. He wishes to "pursue the matter without recrimination"; he divulges that he has "an inner temperamental horror of fighting." In fact, he does not like to make "assertions" of what is correct, preferring rather that merely a discussion be held on the topic.

Concerning Scripture, Erasmus maintains that "there are some secret places in the Holy Scriptures into which God has not wished us to penetrate more deeply...." In fact, he is convinced that we ought not "through irreverent inquisitiveness rush into those things which are hidden, not to say, superfluous," among which matters is "whether our will accomplishes anything in things pertaining to eternal salvation."

Erasmus uses every trick at his disposal. He avows his own commitment to Scripture, but notes that the real issue is the proper interpretation of Scripture. He condemns Luther by association, putting Luther's views in the same camp as those previously condemned by the church—the heretical Manichaeans and the pre-reformer Wyclif. He calls as witnesses nearly all the ancient church fathers, as well as the medieval scholars, because they had used the term free will. But he fails to distinguish between those fathers who were discussing freedom of choice in things natural (what to wear or eat) versus those who were discussing spiritual choices (to sin or do good). 

His basic arguments for the free will of fallen man will sound very familiar to anyone familiar with the arguments of the enemies of sovereign grace. First, Erasmus insists that the fact that God commands implies that man has the ability to obey the commands. Since God commands men to repent, to turn to Him, man can will to do it. He treats promises that are in a conditional form in the same way. 

Secondly, and related to the above, Erasmus maintains that God is unjust and cruel if He punishes sinners who could not will to love and obey God. So fallen man must have free will. In that connection, he teaches that God's predestination is based on foreknowledge—God foreknew who would rebel and who would obey, and on that basis made His choice.

Thirdly, Erasmus denies that natural man can only do evil. Even the pagans, he avers, do good.

Fourthly, Erasmus maintains the (semi-Pelagian) position that natural man's will is weak, but not powerless. Man's will needs grace to accomplish the good. He distinguishes several kinds of grace supposedly given to man to assist him. According to Erasmus, the reason why Scripture sometimes speaks of the whole work of salvation belonging to God is not to teach that man actually does nothing, but only "to avoid a dangerous arrogance" in man.

Yet perhaps the most important element in Erasmus' apology for free will is that man must merit something with God. Repeatedly he returns to this. He writes, "How is it that we hear so much of reward if there is no such thing as merit?" That was the bedrock on which the whole Romish system was built—man can merit with God. And did Luther know it!

In his conclusion, Erasmus offers a compromise position to Luther. Erasmus is willing to reduce the contribution of man's will to the absolute minimum. He writes:

For in my opinion free choice could be so established as to avoid that confidence in our merits and the other dangers which Luther avoids.... 

On this more accommodating view, it is implied that a man owes all his salvation to divine grace, since the power of free choice is exceedingly trivial in this regard and this very thing which it can do is a work of the grace of God who first created free choice and then freed it and healed it.

So far Pelagius/Erasmus/Arminius.

How, then, did Luther answer this brilliant scholar and defender of free will? In a word, Luther devastated Erasmus' arguments. However, the details of Luther's powerful refutation will have to wait until the next issue.


1. This was written in Latin. A similar, though not identical, defense in German was published in 1521, with the title (translated) The Defense and Explanation of All the Articles of Dr. Martin Luther which were Unjustly Condemned by the Roman Bull. This is available in English in Luther's Works, (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press), vol. 32.

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Dykstra, Russell J.

Prof. Russell Dykstra (Wife: Carol)

Ordained: September 1986

Pastorates: Doon, IA - 1986; Hope, Walker, MI - 1995; PR Seminary - 1996

Website: www.prca.org/Seminary/SeminaryMainPg.htm

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