free will

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┬áto 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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Would you remove free will?

What would you do if you were God for a day?

I once spent a few hours asking people that very question. It was a question board I did with the Christian Union at university.

The premise of a question board is simple. There is a board with a question on it, passers by are asked to answer the question, those answers are stuck on the board using post-it notes. It’s a good way to quickly gauge opinions about something, and discuss them if people are interested in doing so. On this occasion the question put people in the place of God. How would people use the power? How would you?

Most of the responses I received have been lost to the mists of an imperfect memory, but one sticks very clearly in the mind. I remember it because I was shocked by it, and because it was by far the most common answer that the people I spoke to had.

I’d remove free will.

At the time I was totally unprepared for that answer. It had simply never occurred to me that people thought they had too much free will. Too little, maybe – after all, plenty of people seem to think of religion as a set of restrictive rules – but too much free will?!

I guess we can think of free will as being free to do what we want to do. I’m sure a philosopher could pick holes in such a simplistic definition (do leave comments to help me refine it), but it’ll do for my purposes. If I have a certain desire, can I satisfy it? Can I do the things which I most want to do?

Is this a type of free will which we have? It seems to me that people do have this freedom, but paradoxically are enslaved by it. We can do what we want, but I’m not sure we can do anything else! We always act according to our desires, and when we deny ourselves it simply shows we have found a greater desire. I may forgo the pleasure of some food, but only the greater pleasure (or at least, what I perceive as the greater pleasure) of losing weight. Or conversely, I might (and often do!) forgo the pleasure of fitness for the greater pleasure of laziness. We are constrained to follow our own free will.

Into this world, Jesus came and offered freedom. Freedom from what? From slavery to our desires which often go against God’s good desires for our lives. That is why Jesus calls you and me “slaves to sin”. How does Jesus give us this freedom? He changes our desires. He cuts right to the heart of the problem, and changes us from being slaves to sin to being slaves to righteousness. We are still constrained, but to live a completely different way. The way that God knows is best for us.

I assume that the people who told me they would remove free will had in mind that they would impose perfection on the world. I assume they would prevent people from doing things which cause suffering. Perhaps they would even force people to worship them. How different the God of the Bible is! Rather than making people act against their will, He changes people from the inside out. The Christian isn’t compelled to do good, but longs to do it. God doesn’t force us to worship Him, but shows us how wonderful He is and our worship flows naturally from it. What a gentle way of dealing with a race of sinful humans!

What would you do if you were God for a day? What do you think of the idea of removing free will?