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Luther, Erasmus, and the Bondage of the Will


During this month of remembering and renewing the Great Reformation of the 16th century, we bring to your attention Martin Luther's great debate with Desiderius Erasmus over the bondage of man's will. While Luther would early on engage Roman Catholicism over this point of doctrine in his development of salvation by the sovereign grace of God alone, his doctrine of man's utter inability to save himself or to contribute to his salvation by the choice of his will was honed by his engagement with the Dutchman of Rotterdam.


In two articles penned for the Standard Bearer back in 2001, Prof. R. Dykstra (professor of NT and church history in the PRC Seminary) captured the heart of this debate between Luther and Erasmus, and the heart of theology of the Reformation over against Rome: salvation by God and His grace and work in Jesus Christ versus salvation by man and his will and work.


For this post we give you a portion of Prof. Dykstra's first installment, encouraging you to read the rest of it and the subsequent one at the links provided. Here then is an excerpt from "Luther, Erasmus, and the Bondage of the Will (1)":


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). 


For the second installment of "Luther, Erasmus, and the Bondage of the Will," follow this link.

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