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The Erasmus-Luther Discourse on Free Will begins with the Diatribe concerning free will, written by Erasmus. Luther then refutes Erasmus’ Diatribe with The Bondage of the Will. The question being debated is whether man is in control of his own will, or whether everything is preordained by God, thus leaving man without free will. Their diverging philosophies have been interpreted as being the basic difference between Catholic and Protestant positions regarding free will. This debate offers two very conflicting views, although both philosophies were basic principles in their respective religions.
Erasmus builds his argument without a solid foundation; like building a house without a foundation, it can easily crumble. Thus, Luther convincingly attacks Erasmus’ Diatribe.
Erasmus holds that man is left with the choice of doing either good or evil. It is man’s choice and therefore, free will exists. In the opinion of Erasmus, the freedom of the will in Holy Scriptures is as follows: if on the road to piety, one should continue eagerly to improve; if one has become involved in sin, one should make every effort to extricate oneself, and to solicit the mercy of the Lord.
Two conclusions concerning Erasmus’ beliefs can be drawn from this statement; firstly that man can himself find repentance and secondly that God is infallible, meaning that a person engages in evil acts with his own will. The definition of free will given by Erasmus is “the power of the human will whereby man can apply to or turn away from that which leads unto eternal salvation.
While addressing the topic of Adam and Eve, Erasmus states, “In man, will was so good and so free that even without additional grace it could have remained in a state of innocence, though not without help of grace could it attain the blessedness of eternal life, as the Lord Jesus promised his people.” Erasmus, therefore, believes eternal salvation is attainable with the help and mercy of God, but Erasmus also believes that Adam and Eve caused man to have original sin. Erasmus goes on to write, “In those without extraordinary grace the reason is darkened, but not extinguished. Probably the same occurs to the power of the will: it is not completely extinct but unproductive of virtuous deeds.” In short Erasmus believed that man has free will and therefore is punished or rewarded according to the choices he makes. He backs his argument with many quotes from the scripture but so does Luther, thus the argument shifts, and the sense of scripture is the debate.
Luther, who wrote The Bondage of the Will to refute what Erasmus had written in the Diatribe, disagrees; stating that man does not have freedom of the will. In the first few pages, Luther proclaims “The Holy Scripture is no skeptic, and what He has written into our hearts are no doubts or opinions, but assertions more certain and more firm that all human experience in life itself.” Furthermore, he goes on to say “The essence of Christianity which you (Erasmus) describe…is without Christ, without the Spirit, and chillier than ice…” Luther immediately implies that Erasmus has not been saved. Luther abhors those who claim to be self-reformers, once again contradicting Erasmus. “You say: Who will reform his life? I answer: Nobody! No man can! God has no time for you self-reformers, for they are all hypocrites. The elect who fear God will be reformed by the Holy Spirit.”
Perhaps the quote that best exemplifies Luther’s position is as follows: Thus the human will is like the beast of burden. If God rides it, it wills and goes whence God wills; as the Psalm says, “I was a beast of burden before thee” (Psalm 72:22) If Satan rides, it wills and goes where Satan wills. Nor may it choose to which rider it will run, nor which it will seek. But the riders themselves contend who shall have and hold it.” This philosophy contends that both good and evil are worked by a higher being. Both authors in this work make reference to Judas and his betrayal of Christ. Both parties acknowledge the foreknowledge of God, but Luther proclaims that God willed it. Thus the Protestant faith grew on the principles of predestination and the absolute belief that the scriptures are to be interpreted literally.
At no point does Luther ever stray from the central point of his refutation, proving Erasmus wrong by presenting the conclusive evidence needed. Erasmus, on the other hand, never really plants his feet in this argument. Erasmus covers his tracks by changing the terms of the debate throughout his work. For example, Erasmus fails to define the limits within which the reader should think that the will is being acted upon. One can not conclude that Erasmus does not fully believe what he states in his Diatribe, but he admittedly discloses “I have always preferred playing the freer field of the muses, than fighting ironclad in close combat.” Erasmus proclaims that their debate is in the sense of scripture, yet how can one who defends free will pigeonhole the interpretation of the reader? Luther is much more direct in laying out his arguments and criticizes Erasmus for stating a bare definition without explaining its parts.
The debate has very much become a personal matter by the time Luther’s discourse commences. There is no mutual agreement whatsoever, thus it is easy to see why the views of Catholics and Protestants were so divergent. Erasmus is clearly trying to convince his readers, most particularly Luther, that free will does indeed exist. Luther continues to stay his course and states that God wills all. Everything is preordained, evil included. Of the assertions, Luther simply states “one must delight in assertions to be a Christian at all!” While Erasmus seems leery to take a firm stance in his debate, he is changing the circumstances of the debate, which clearly is an attempt to prevent Luther from pinning him down in Luther’s The Bondage of the Will. After thoroughly refuting everything Erasmus has stated, Luther proclaims that Erasmus has “asserted nothing but made comparisons”. Whether there be complete merit in either man’s philosophy, Luther has quite convincingly made Erasmus’ position appear flawed.
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