Equipped to Serve: Erasmus

As I mentioned in an earlier post, it is my intention to summarise some teaching I have been blessed by at Trinity Church Bradford. The topic is church history, and more specifically the reformation (for now at least). As our starting point, we took some excerpts from On the Freedom of the Will by Desiderius Erasmus (written in 1524). This was a work written in response to Martin Luther’s teaching on free will. It was a David and Goliath in intellectual terms, with Erasmus regarded as one of the most learned men in Europe at the time.

'Portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam' by Hans Holbein the Younger

‘Portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam’ by Hans Holbein the Younger

I’d never read any of Erasmus’ writing before, but I was immediately struck by how much we can learn from the way he argues. He is very clear and methodical in his argument, and grounds much of what he says in the Bible. He sets out Bible passages which seem to agree with him, Bible passages which seem to disagree, and responds to the arguments employed by Luther. In all of this he attempts to interpret the Bible in a way which is consistent with those Christians who have gone before him. I would hope that we can all agree that, although Erasmus got much wrong, his approach is one we would do well to imitate today.

It is not only his style of argument which is notable. The Freedom of the Will is also notable for Luther’s own commendation of it! He wrote

“I praise and commend you highly for this also, that unlike all the rest you alone have attacked the real issue, the essence of the matter in dispute, and have not wearied me with irrelevancies about the papacy, purgatory, indulgences, and such like trifles (for trifles they are rather than basic issues), with which almost everyone hitherto has gone hunting for me without success. You and you alone have seen the question on which everything hinges, and have aimed at the vital spot; for which I sincerely thank you, since I am only too glad¬†to give as much attention to this subject as time and leisure permit.”

Another commendation we can apply to Erasmus is that his motives in writing are extremely good. He does not go searching for a fight, as if an argument is happy sport, but aims to avoid arguments which generate more heat than light. As he says,

“who will learn anything fruitful from this sort of discussion – beyond the fact that each leaves the encounter bespattered with the other’s filth?”

He is eventually persuaded to enter the fray, largely from a concern that God’s character may be misrepresented by what he sees as false teaching. While Erasmus is wrong in much of what he says, here again we can learn from him. When we enter any dispute, may we always be motivated by a desire to safeguard the truth of who God is, not stir up trouble.

I won’t try to summarise all the arguments Erasmus makes, but the general gist seems to be that although human free will was damaged in the fall of Genesis 3, it was not extinguished and man is still able to choose to keep God’s law. He argues this from the many passages of the Bible which give commands, and he writes

“What end do all the myriad commandments serve if it is not possible for a man in any way to keep what is commanded?”

He can see no possible answer to this question, and decides that if someone ought to do something, they must necessarily have the ability to do it.

A year later, in 1525, Luther wrote a response. The content can be largely guessed from the title he gave it, which makes clear that he was unpersuaded by all that Erasmus wrote: “On the Bondage of the Will”. That will be the subject of my next in this series, which will probably be in a couple of weeks.

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