Predestination and Freewill: On the Freedom of the Will, Part I

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



Erasmus wrote Freedom of the Will, at least in part, as a response to Luther’s response to the Papal Bull of Leo X in his Assertio.[1] In Freedom of the Will, Erasmus took issue with Luther writing that “I was wrong in saying that free choice before grace is a reality only in name. I should have said simply: ‘free choice is in reality a fiction, or a name without reality.’ For no one has it in his own power to think a good or bad though, but everything (as Wyclif’s article condemned at Constance rightly teaches) happens by absolute necessity.”[2] It was especially the “absolute necessity” portion of the text that Erasmus sought to address and demonstrate the proper understanding of the human will and salvation.[3] Before directly considering the will in Freedom, Erasmus outlined a number of considerations that assisted in his understanding of the place of human will in salvation. As with many of his other works, Erasmus outlines pastoral considerations, especially for lay people.[4] Additionally, Erasmus expresses concerns about the obscurity and interpretation of scripture, which he believes must be taken into account when formulating any theology.[5] Ultimately, the major concern for Erasmus in Freedom of the Will involved the role of “human will by which a man can apply himself to the things which lead to eternal salvation, or turn away from them.”[6]

In reading and interpreting Romans,[7] Erasmus understands Paul to be a champion of free choice.[8] While Paul’s understanding of salvation admittedly assigns a great deal of work to the Godhead, Erasmus also concludes that many texts of Paul’s have, “induced learned and holy men not to take free choice entirely away.”[9] Thus Erasmus can write: “So in Rom. 7 [18]: ‘I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.’ Here Paul seems to confess that it is in the power of man to will what is good, and this willing good is itself a good work, since otherwise there would be no evil in evil will. And it is beyond controversy that the will is evil.”[10] Concerning such passages as Romans 9:17 and the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, Erasmus’ interpretation relies heavily upon church father’s such as Origen, as he writes that “[God] has mercy, therefore, on those who recognize the goodness of God and repent, but those are hardened who are given an opportunity to repent, by neglecting the goodness of God, persist in evil courses…. God hardens when he does not at once punish the sinner, and has mercy as soon as he invited repentance by means of afflictions.”[11] Such an interpretation does not exclude the possibility of human will playing a part in the salvation process, as Erasmus continues saying that “Pharaoh was created with a will that could turn either way, but of his own wish he turned to evil, and with his own mind preferred to follow evil rather than obey the commandments of God.”[12] Yet for Erasmus, even the willing of Pharaoh was dependent upon the mercy of God and a form of prevenient grace, for “Just as he turns the efforts of the wicked to the benefit of the godly, so the efforts of the good do not attain the end they seek, unless they are aided by the free favor of God. Without doubt this is what Paul means by: ‘So it depends not upon man’s will or exertion, but upon God’s mercy’ (Rom. 9:16). The mercy of God preveniently moves the will to will and accompanies it in its efforts, gives it a happy issue. And yet meanwhile we will, run, follow after– yet that which is our own let us ascribe to God to whom we wholly belong.”[13] For Erasmus then, Paul in Romans represents a champion of free choice who simultaneously understands salvation in terms of God’s prevenient mercy as well as humanity’s actions.

[1] Assertio omnium articulorum M. Lutheri per Bullam Leonis X novissimam damnatorum Article 36, Dec. 1520. [2] Weimarer Ausgabe, D. Martin Luthers Werke. Kritische Gesamtausgabe. 90 vols. Weimar, 1883 ff. Volume 7, 446. Cited by Philip Watson in the “Introduction: Lutheran Riposte.” Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation. General Editors John Baillie, John T. McNeill, and Henry P. Van Dusen. The Library of Christian Classics, Vol. XVII. Westminster Press: Philadelphia, 1969. 13. [3] Scholars have noted that Luther’s German version of the same treatise makes no mention of necessity at this point; it was the Latin treatise, however, that Erasmus read and took issue with. Philip Watson. “Introduction: Lutheran Riposte.” Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation. General Editors John Baillie, John T. McNeill, and Henry P. Van Dusen. The Library of Christian Classics, Vol. XVII. Westminster Press: Philadelphia, 1969. 13. [4] Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam. De Libero Arbitrio Diatribe Seu Collatio (On the Freedom of the Will: A Diatribe or Discourse). Translated and Edited by E. Gordon Rupp. Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation. The Library of Christian Classics, Vol. XVII. General Editors John Baillie, John T. McNeill, and Henry P. Van Dusen. Westminster Press: Philadelphia, 1969. [5] Ibid., 38-40; 42-7. [6] Ibid., 47. [7] And indeed, all of the canonical Pauline writings. [8] Ibid., 61-4. [9] Ibid., 64. [10] Ibid., 63. [11] Ibid., 65. [12] Ibid., 66. [13] Ibid., 66.


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