380. Take Your Choice: Erasmus vs Luther on Free Will

Posted on 26 September 2021

Erasmus clashes with Martin Luther over the question whether our wills are free or enslaved to sin.

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Further Reading

• E.G. Rupp and P.S. Watson (trans.), Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation (Louisville: 1969). [Complete trans. of Erasmus’ On Free Will and Luther’s Bondage of the Will]

• E.F. Winter, Erasmus – Luther: Discourse on Free Will (New York: 2002). [Complete trans. of Erasmus, only selections from Luther]

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• K. Alfsvåg, “Luther on Necessity,” Harvard Theological Review 108 (2015), 52-69.

• M.O. Boyle, Rhetoric and Reform: Erasmus’ Civil Dispute with Luther (Cambridge MA: 1983).

• M. Massing, Fatal Discord: Erasmus, Luther, and the Fight for the Western Mind (New York: 2018).

• R.R. McCutcheon, “The Missing Dialogue Concerning the Will Between Erasmus and Luther,” Renaissance and Reformation  21 (1997), 35-47.

• H.J. McSorley, Luthers Lehre vom unfreien Willen nach seiner Hauptschrift De Servo Arbitrio im Lichte der biblischenund kirchlichen Tradition (Munich: 1967).

• J.D. Tracy, “Two Erasmuses, Two Luthers: Erasmus’ Strategy in Defense of De Libero Arbitrio,” Archive for Reformation History (1987), 37-60.

Comments

Dom Paschal R Scotti 26 September 2021

The first complete edition of Augustine by the Basel publisher Johann Amerbach made Augustine's anti-Pelagian works (which were not well-known in the Middle Ages and which were often mixed with much pseudo-Augustinian work) much better known and of easy access. I have often believed that it played a much larger part in the Reformation and the rise of Jansenism than historians have allowed.   

Xaratustrah 1 January 2022

Hi Peter,

I am still confused how I should understand Luther's opinion on free will or lack of it. Around 17:00 minutes into the episode you cover Luther's answer to Erasmus about the divine foreknowledge, which goes in the direction that God knows necessarily and immutably human actions so that their actions are inevitable. His foreknowledge causes necessity of immutability not of compulsion, i.e. the fact that God foreknows our sin makes them necessary and inevitable, but God does not force us to sin...

now... if God can not force us to sin, and in the case that I decide to finally refrain from sin, then it can not be guaranteed that His foreknowledge actually turns out true, so there can not be any necessity of immutability at all.

Is Luther's argument somehow circular?

I can imagine that this topic was always a hot one, even among Jewish and Muslim philosophers (Maimonides? Sadra?). I wonder what arguments others would have in this regard.

cheers!

I think his position here is cogent at least as far as divine foreknowledge goes, and to understand it more fully you could go back to episode 276 where I covered scholastic accounts of how God could foreknow a genuinely free action. Basically the point is that knowing that something has happened, is happening now, or is happening in the future, does not cause it to happen.

The problem with Luther's view, as far I as can see, is rather that he seems to be draining our free will of any causal efficacy because it is entirely up to God whether or not I will be righteous. So as I point out in the episode on Calvin, the hardcore determinist position in Calvinism is arguably just the inevitable consequence of Luther's view, even though Luther and the Lutherans tried not to accept it.

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