The Free Will Controversy
Between the years of 1524 and 1527, Erasmus Desiderius and Martin Luther were tangled up in an interesting controversy (Bainton 187). This controversy surprisingly did not involve the authority of the pope, the nature of the church, indulgences, or any of the other practices that each man equally detested. It involved the philosophical topic regarding the question of free or enslaved will (Faulkner 171). Preserved Smith defines free will as the power to apply ones self to the things that make for salvation (348). This controversy was bound to happen for a number of reasons. First of all, Luther was becoming violent in his words and actions in general. Secondly, Luther made himself a target by his assertion in the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518. Luther’s exact words were, Free will, after the fall, even when doing the best it can, commits a mortal sin. These two factors led Erasmus to speak out against Luther in De Libero Artitrio (On Free Will).
Luther eventually answered back furiously in De Servo Arbitrio (On Enslaved Will) (Bainton 186-7). This was a superior work which explains to historians why Luther prevails in the end (Zweig 139).
Erasmus was one of the most intelligent people of his century. Today however, he remains in the minds of most people as nothing more than another name (Zweig 3). In his time, he was the leader of all scholars in Europe from Germany to Italy and Spain and from England to Hungary as well. He stands above the other humanists and forerunners of the reformation (Schaff 402). His great mission was to bring back the spirit of classical and Christian Antiquity (Smith 33-4). Preserved Smith describes the first part of his life, specifically until 1524, as being progressive and reformatory; the second, until his death in 1536, he says was, conservative and reactionary (402). He is described as being somewhat of a nomad, never staying in the same place for more than eight years (48). Compared to his contemporaries, Erasmus did more than his share in preparing the church for the reformation (Schaff 402).
Historians refer to Erasmus as the, illegitimate son of a Dutch priest named Gerard, and Margaret (Schaff 404). He was born in Rotterdam on October 27, in the 1466 or 1467 (Faulkner 30). He received his early education at Utrecht and then at Deventer where he began to impress people with his talents. Within him was a love was a passion for books and at the age of just 12, he knew Horace and Terence by memory (Schaff 404). When his father died, he was taken care of by three guardians. Their goal was to have him become a priest which gave them the power to rob him of his inheritance. They placed him in the house of the Brethren of the Common Life at Hertogenbusch. While there, Erasmus calls their houses as, seminaries of monasticism, and refers to their teachers as a, destruction to good intellect. They did not come close to destroying Erasmus’s intellect. A few years later, his guardians convinced him to enter a monastery. He entered the Augustinian monastery against his will where he would spend five extremely unhappy years (Faulkner 323). After this, Erasmus went on to achieve his fame in doing the things he always wanted to do (Schaff 407-9).
Despite the fact that Erasmus and Luther had many difference, there were ways in which they were similar. Both of them advocated a return to antiquity and an excitement for the golden age of Christianity and pagan Rome. They both had an interest in revolts against the mediaeval scholasticism. Another similarity lies in their child-hoods. They were both born into an era of individualism. Also, they grew up in cities that had recently developed in the same bourgeois class (Smith 321).
Many differences between these two men led to their quarrel. Some of these differences were physical. Luther was the son of a minor. This along with his inborn energies made him the rougher of the two. Luther is quoted as saying, I gorge like a Bohemian and gulp down my liquor like a German (Zweig 132). Luther also spoke in a powerful German voice that was full of vigor (133). Erasmus on the other hand was seen as a man of intellect (134). He was delicate with fair skin and a pleasant voice, unlike that of Luther’s. His behavior was seen as somewhat charming and graceful (Schaff 410). These two men were undoubtedly different mentally as well. Erasmus kept his mind open to a wide variety of topics. Luther had a more narrow concentration of thoughts. However, every thought that came his way would combine with his personality to form something like him. This made his expressions strong and powerful, gaining attention from the rest of the world. Erasmus had a goal that was much different. His goal was tranquility of the soul and peace. Luther had his mind set on the activation of emotional tension (Zweig 135-6).
In addition to the differences between Erasmus and Luther, Erasmus was being pressured by outsiders to take a stand. In the past, Erasmus had been supported by many high priests, sometimes even financially (Faulkner 170). Feeling pressure from King Henry and Ulrich Von Hutten, a strong leader of the humanists at the time, Erasmus took his stand. In September of 1524, Erasmus came onto the scene with, The Freedom of Will (Schaff 428). The book by Faulkner titled, Erasmus the Scholar, takes an in-depth look at what Erasmus had written. His work regarding free will took the catholic view in which man is free to accept or reject the grace of god; that grace is absolutely necessary; that it is given to man, but that its gift does not supercede, but rather stimulates and sanctifies, man’s freedom. Erasmus verified that the question is not an easy one to answer. He expresses that to fall back upon someone’s religious and moral consciousness and say nothing further is an act of piety. To assert the bondage of well is even worse because that would place the souls of men in danger. The right to sin would be easily derived. Most of these conclusions could only be drawn by educated classes. Erasmus stayed calm in his tone knowing that there was still much to learn regarding the topic. This meant that he could learn from anyone, even Luther. Erasmus broke down the proof that could be found within scripture. Erasmus acknowledged that for freedom there are two main arguments. The first being the conception of God as a moral Person; and the second was the conception of the moral personality of man (173). Erasmus stated some of the following things: That whoever denies the freedom of the will makes God responsible for sin which would be inconsistent with God’s righteousness and goodness. The demands of God upon man assume his freedom, otherwise God would be a tyrant. There is human responsibility only when this is assumed. Erasmus brought out the point that freedom in the religious aspect is simply the power to receive or reject eternal salvation. This is where he brought race into play. He did not call it a natural endowment of man from God, but a transforming working power which goes out from God into the will of man. He stated that God could use force on man, but he does not. His interpretation concluded that God gives man his grace to be accepted or rejected (174).
Of course there was much anticipation for the response from Luther. After a year later, Luther came out with Slavery of the Will. Schaff calls it one of his most vigorous and profound books that is packed with great ideas and exaggerations (430). Luther thanked Erasmus for concentrating on the subject of free will alone and not going into controversies like the pope or indulgences. In his work, Luther points out his perspective on the issue. He felt that with God’s almighty power that all things happen by necessity, and that there can be no freedom of man. He made the comparison of a horse going only where its rider takes it. Luther did not believe that all scripture should be taken seriously.
Especially those involving repentance and holy living. He believes they should be taken as God trying to tell man to try to repent and do good, soon you will find out that it cannot be done (432). Luther calls anything contrary to this, Pelagianism (Faulkner 175).
Another interesting point that Luther brings up is that we can never know when we have done enough, unless all judgement comes from God; but the ever all-working God is the, sure rock of our salvation. Another difference in which Luther separates himself is perception of the holy spirit. Luther excuses the power of the Holy Spirit as being unnecessary Erasmus makes the factor of God not only necessary but the major part. This work by Luther makes it easy to see that he was very glued to his view that God was so powerful that He was constantly surrounding all and causing their activities.
One had to expect that Erasmus would come out with a reply. In March of 1526, Hyperaspistes appeared. This was a reply to Luther’s work. It was much longer than his first work. In it, Erasmus does such things as blame Luther for the peasant’s revolt (Smith 356). Erasmus curses Luther for some other things as well. One of the quotes from his work quotes him as saying, I have, O Luther, so much faith in the Holy Scriptures and the decrees of the Church that, even without the help of your faith I may hope to obtain salvation through god’s mercy(Faulkner 176). Erasmus also blames Luther for going against the church (177). He also says in his aggressive work that Luther’s predestinarian views to would be traded for some consequences (Schaff 433).
This controversy between Erasmus and Luther led to each man forgetting what their true purpose was to themselves and their cause (Schaff 433). In the end it was Luther who prevailed (Zweig 139). Luther abandoned Erasmus and thought of him as the vainest person in the world. He thought of Erasmus as an enemy to religion (Schaff 434). I never came across a clear and concrete resolution of this controversy. There is no doubt that arguments can be made for both sides. There is also plenty of evidence to conclude that this controversy was extremely interesting due to the two people involved.