Review: Erasmus and Luther: The Battle Over Free Will

Erasmus and Luther: The Battle over Free Will Luther Erasmus edited by Clarence H. Miller, translated by Clarence H. Miller and Peter Macardle. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2012.

Summary: This work is a compilation of the argument between Erasmus and Luther over the place of free will and grace in salvation, excluding most of the supporting exegesis but giving the gist of the argument.

How free is the human will? This is a theological and philosophical discussion that has been ongoing for at least two millenia. In our present context the question arises in light of research findings in evolutionary biology and neuroscience. More narrowly, this has been a point of contention within Christian theology from the disputes between Augustine and the Pelagians (fourth century) to more present-day discussions between Calvinists and Arminians. The argument between Luther and Erasmus at the beginning of the Reformation comes a bit over midway in this history and helps us understand some of the theological fault lines between the churches of the Reformation and the Roman Catholic Church that are still under discussion to the present day.

The “battle” is really a disputation in a formal sense that was initiated somewhat reluctantly by Erasmus who was actually sympathetic to many of Luther’s contentions for reform but felt that Luther’s Augustinian embrace of sovereign grace alone with no place for human will in salvation to be extreme. His initial discourse with Luther was a somewhat moderated appeal that sought to thread a path between grace alone and some allowance for the place of human will assisted by grace. Luther’s reply, which we know as The Bondage of the Will argues forcefully, and at times acerbically, that when it comes to our salvation “free” will is a non-existent entity. Erasmus responded with a two part reply, known under the title of The Shield-Bearer Defending in which he more forcefully defends the place of human will in salvation.

The arguments are lengthy, detailed and at points repetitious and thus the group I read this work with were glad for a compilation rather than the full versions of both works. In the introductory material, the editor outlines the works, showing in bold print the sections included in the compilation. This edition is well-annotated, providing background material for allusions and helpful connections back to opposing arguments when these are referred to.

As I mentioned, this debate helped delineate some of the fault lines between Catholic and Reformation churches:

  • The question of the perspicacity of scripture–how easy or difficult is it for the individual reader to understand scripture?
  • How important is the tradition of how the church has read scripture versus the priority of the individual reader, particularly Luther?
  • Assumptions about “fallen” human nature. Are we utterly incapable of doing anything to contribute to our salvation or is there some “spark” of goodness which may be assisted by grace?
  • Related to this, is our salvation to be attributed exclusively to the sovereign grace of God or is there some place for the human will in seeking and believing?

We concluded that the arguments did not resolve these questions for us. In our reading group were those leaning toward Luther and those toward Erasmus, although most of us were troubled on the one hand by Luther’s exclusive emphasis on sovereign grace, and on the other by Erasmus’s language of “meriting” grace and his implication that justification is a process, confusing justification and sanctification. We wondered if the word “free” might be a sticking point and a discussion of human agency might have been more helpful. We recognized that we are dealing with things that are either paradoxical (apparently contradictory) or antinomies (two contrary things that are both true). We saw the challenge of attempting to reconcile as abstractions (“free will” vs. “grace”) realities lived out in the existential life of faith where we experience both our “chosenness” and our “choosing” under the grace of God.

Hence, if one is looking for a “pat” answer to this discussion, this work will either simply confirm your pre-understanding or not help. But if you wish to understand the discussion, listening to these two great figures will prove illuminating and perhaps help you think more deeply about some of the fundamental questions in Christian theology.

One thought on “Review: Erasmus and Luther: The Battle Over Free Will

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: April 2015 | Bob on Books

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