Predestination and Freewill: Context and Early Erasmus

This post is part of our ongoing series on Romans, Predestination, and Freewill.


Before moving to fully Luther and Erasmus, we must note a similarity between the early and late-medieval interpreters of scripture. Augustine, Pelagius, Luther, and Erasmus each writes in manner that takes a ‘proof-text’ approach to concepts and ideas that can be found within the scriptures and extrapolate their theology from those interpretations, an approach that finds little academic sympathy today.[1] That said, the debate between Martin Luther and Erasmus of Rotterdam concerning the role of humanity in their eternal salvation was one of the most important intellectual battles of the 16th Century Evangelical Reformation, and one that, as Luther said, displayed that “real issue, the essence of the matter in dispute”[2] of the Reformation. Erasmus of Rotterdam was the premier humanist scholar of his day, publisher of the first printed edition of the Greek New Testament, and a Catholic reformer who sought to take Christian religion ad fontes, back to its sources. Martin Luther was a doctor of New Testament at Wittenberg University who sought to bring the Church back to its scriptural roots of doctrine, including the doctrine of salvation. It must be noted that Erasmus and Luther both had concerns in writing their respective works that surpass the concerns of this present writing.[3]

Thus we again note the summary style of this present treatment and now turn to view Erasmus and Luther’s respective writings on the issue the human will, giving emphasis to each scholars general constructions as well as their use of Romans chapters seven through nine. Additionally, we also must consider the importance of each scholar’s interpretation in this debate. For Luther, a great deal of emphasis has been placed upon his unique justification-centered reading of Romans and it may be argued that were his understanding of Romans chapters seven through nine altered, he may have needed to modify his understanding of God, salvation, scripture, certainty, and the human will. For Erasmus, whose faith appears to be rooted more in his interpretation of the early church fathers and reason, while the debate concerning human will and salvation carries a level of significance not found in other theological discourse, for him to concede to Luther’s perspective would not seem to force him to rethink his entire theology as Luther would, though he would undoubtedly be faced with a number of important concerns.


Briefly considering Erasmus’ theology of salvation apart from the concerns he presents in De Libero Arbitrio Diatribe Seu Collatio (Or On the Freedom of the Will: A Diatribe or Discourse),[4] we see that Erasmus’ pastoral concerns for Christian growth in faith and virtue play a large role in his overall theology. Balanced reliance on the power and sovereignty of God remains important, for “Victory is not something that depends upon chance; it is entirely in the hands of God and, through him, also in our hands…. If you but listen to his call and do your part, you will be assured of victory, for not only will [He] fight alongside you, but His very liberality will be imputed to you as merit…. We must seek the middle course… neither acting too presumptuously because we rely too much on divine grace, nor surrendering in despair because we are disheartened by the difficulties of war.”[5] Erasmus clearly rejects any form of actual works righteousness, for, “To place the whole of religion in external ceremonies is sublime stupidity. This amounts to revolt against the spirit of the Gospel and is a reversion to the superstitions of Judaism. St. Paul was incessant in his attempts to remove the Jews from their faith in external works. I feel that the vast majority of Christians have sunk once again into this unhealthy situation….”[6]


[1] Indeed, a number of commentators allude to an argument that traces the general interpretation of Romans as a justification-centered treatise back to Luther’s interpretation of Augustine in his use of proof-texting Pauline materials, especially those in Romans 7-9. [2] Martin Luther. De Servo Arbitrio (On the Bondage of the Will). Translated and Edited by Philip S. Watson. Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation. The Library of Christian Classics, Volume XVII. General Editors John Baillie, John T. NcNeill, and Henry P. Van Dusen. Westminster Press: Philadelphia, 1969. 333. [3] Further, Bernhard Lohse writes concerning specifically Luther that, “In order to interpret Luther’s treatise we must take into account its character as polemic. If in adopting the form of deliberative rhetoric Erasmus had chosen a genre calculated to spare him any personal involvement and avoid or worsen a dispute over the question, Luther attempted to take Erasmus literally and treat his diatribe as a dogmatic tract. To this extent, the men argued on two different levels, as a result of which no authentic dialogue ever occurred.” (Bernhard Lohse. Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development. Translated and Edited by Roy A. Harrisville. Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 1999. 163) Additionally, it has been argued by some scholars that Luther and Erasmus, who everyone admits talk past each other’s arguments on some level, actually failed to adequately understand the other’s arguments and positions, and thus, no real dialogue occurred. Though this interpretation remains a possibility, it does not directly address our purposes, namely, viewing Luther and Erasmus’ use of Romans in their own constructions of soteriology. [4] Hereafter referenced as Freedom of the Will or Freedom. [5] Erasmus of Rotterdam. Handbook of the Militant Christian. Edited by John P. Dolan. The Essential Erasmus. Meridian: New York, 1964. 34. [6] Ibid., 68.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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