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History of the Christian Church, Volume VII. Modern Christianity. The German Reformation.
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§ 73. The Free-will Controversy. 1524–1527.


See Literature in § 73.


After halting some time between approval and disapproval, Erasmus found it impossible to keep aloof from the irrepressible conflict. Provoked by Hutten, and urged by King Henry and English friends, he declared open war against Luther, and broke with the Reformation. He did so with great reluctance; for he felt that he could not satisfy either party, and that he was out of his element in a strictly theological dispute. He chose for his attack Luther’s doctrine of total depravity.

Here lay the chief dogmatic difference between the two. Erasmus was an admirer of Socrates, Cicero, and Jerome; while Luther was a humble pupil of St. Paul and Augustin. Erasmus lacked that profound religious experience through which Luther had passed in the convent, and sympathized with the anthropology of the Greek fathers and the semi-Pelagian school.

In September, 1524, Erasmus appeared on the field with his work on the "Freedom of the Will." It is a defence of freedom as an indispensable condition of moral responsibility, without which there can be no meaning in precept, repentance, and reward. He maintains essentially the old semi-Pelagian theory, but in the mildest form, and more negatively than positively; for he wished to avoid the charge of heresy. He gives the maximum of glory to God, and a minimum to man. "I approve," he says, "of those who ascribe something to free-will, but rely most upon grace." We must exert our will to the utmost, but the will is ineffective without the grace of God. He urged against Luther Christ’s call upon Jerusalem to repent (Matt. 23:37), and the will of God that no one should perish, but that all should be saved (Ezek. 33:11; 1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9). He treated him with respect, but charged him with attempting to drive out one extreme by another.

Luther appreciated the merits of Erasmus, and frankly acknowledged his literary superiority.533533    He wrote him a very respectful letter, March 28, 1519, thanking him for his great services to the cause of letters, and congratulating him for being heartily abused by the enemies of truth and light. Even in his book against Erasmus (De Servo Arbitrio), he says at the beginning: "Viribus eloquentiae et ingenio me longissime superas." And towards the close: "Fateor, tu magnus es et multis iisque nobilissimis dotibus a Deo ornatus ... ingenio, eruditione, facundia usque ad miraculum. Ego vero nihil habeo et sum, nisi quod Christianum esse me glorier."Op. Lat. VII. 367 (Erl. Frcf. ed.). But he knew his weakness, and expressed, as early as 1516, the fear that he understood too little of the grace of God.534534    See his letters to Lange and Spalatin in De Wette, I. 39 sq., 52; 87 sq. To Lange he wrote; "Ich fürchte, Erasmus breitet Christum und die Gnade Gottes nicht genug aus, von der er gar wenig weiss. Das Menschliche gilt mehr bei ihm als das Göttliche." He found in his writings more refutation of error than demonstration of truth, more love of peace than love of the cross. He hated his way of insinuating doubts. On June 20, 1523, he wrote to Oecolampadius:535535    De Wette, II. p. 352 sqq. "May the Lord strengthen you in your proposed explanation of Isaiah [in the University of Basel], although Erasmus, as I understand, does not like it .... He has done what he was ordained to do: he has introduced the ancient languages, in the place of injurious scholastic studies. He will probably die like Moses in the land of Moab. He does not lead to better studies which teach piety. I would rather he would entirely abstain from explaining and paraphrasing the Scriptures, for he is not up to this work .... He has done enough to uncover the evil; but to reveal the good and to lead into the land of promise, is not his business, in my opinion." In a letter to Erasmus, dated April, 1524, a few months before the open breach, he proposed to him that they should let each other alone, and apologized for his subserviency to the papists, and his want of courage, in a manner which could not but wound the sensitive scholar.536536    In De Wette, II. 498 sq. Erasmus answered, May 5, 1524.


Luther on the Slavery of the Human Will.


He waited a whole year before he published his reply on the "Slavery of the Will" (December, 1525). It is one of his most vigorous and profound books, full of grand ideas and shocking exaggerations, that border on Manichaeism and fatalism.537537    Köstlin (I. 773) says that it is not surpassed by any work of Luther, "for energy and acuteness." But Döllinger and Janssen (II. 379) judge that Luther borrowed it from the Koran rather than from the New Testament. He thanked Erasmus for going to the root of the controversy instead of troubling him "about the papacy, purgatory, indulgences, and other fooleries." He inseparably connects divine foreknowledge and foreordination, and infers from God’s almighty power that all things happen by necessity, and that there can be no freedom in the creature.538538    "Ipsa ratione teste nullum potest esse liberum arbitrium in homine vel angelo aut ulla creatura."Op. Lat. VII. 366. He represents the human will as a horse or a donkey which goes just as the rider directs it; and that rider is the Devil in the state of fallen nature, and God in the state of grace. The will has no choice of master; it is God and the Devil who are fighting for its possession. The Scripture exhortations to repentance and holy living must not be understood seriously, but ironically, as if God would say to man: Only try to repent and to do good, and you will soon find out that you cannot do it. He deals with man as a mother with the child: she invites the child to walk, in order that he may stretch out the arm for help. God speaks in this fashion solely to convict us of our helplessness, if we do not implore his assistance. Satan said, "Thou art free to act." Moses said, "Act," in order to convict us, before Satan, of our inability to act.

In the same book Luther makes a distinction between the Word of God and God himself, or between the revealed will of God, which offers salvation to all, and the concealed or hidden will, which means to save only some, and to leave the rest to deserved perdition. In this way he escapes the force of such passages as Ezek. 18:23; 33:11; 1 Tim. 2:4, urged by Erasmus, that God does not wish the death but the salvation of the sinner (namely, according to his revealed will only).539539    "Multa facit Deus quae verbo suo non ostendit nobis, multa quoque vult, quae verbo suo non ostendit sese velle. Sic non vult mortem peccatoris, verbo scilicet, vult autem illam voluntate illa imperscrutabili." Vol. VII. p. 222. Erl. ed. Op. Lat. The scholastic divines made a similar distinction between the voluntas signi and the voluntas beneplaciti. But this distinction puts a contradiction in God, which is impossible and intolerable.

If we except the peculiar way of statement and illustration, Luther’s view is substantially that of St. Augustin, whom Erasmus, with all due reverence for the great man, represents as teaching, "God works in us good and evil, and crowns his good works in us, and punishes his bad works in us." The positive part is unobjectionable: God is the author and rewarder of all that is good; but the negative part is the great stumbling-block. How can God in justice command us to walk when we are lame, and punish us for not walking? The theory presupposes, of course, the apostasy and condemnation of the whole human race, on the ground of its unconscious or impersonal pre-existence and participation in the sin and guilt of Adam.

All the Reformers were originally Augustinians, that is, believers in the total depravity of man’s nature, and the absolute sovereignty of God’s grace. They had, like St. Paul and St. Augustin, passed through a terrible conflict with sin, and learned to feel in their hearts, what ordinary Christians profess with their lips, that they were justly condemned, and saved only by the merits of Christ. They were men of intense experience and conviction of their own sinfulness and of God’s mercifulness; and if they saw others perish in unbelief, it was not because they were worse, but because of the inscrutable will of God, who gives to some, and withholds from others, the gift of saving faith. Those champions of freedom taught the slavery of the will in all things pertaining to spiritual righteousness. They drew their moral strength from grace alone. They feared God, and nothing else. Their very fear of God made them fearless of men. The same may be said of the French Huguenots and the English Puritans. Luther stated this theory in stronger terms than Augustin or even Calvin; and he never retracted it,—as is often asserted,—but even twelve years later he pronounced his book against Erasmus one of his very best.540540    In 1537 he wrote to Capito, "Nullum agnosco meum justum librum nisi forte De Servo Arbitrio et Catechismum." De Wette, V. 70. In the Articles of Smalkald he again denied the freedom of the will as a scholastic error; and in his last work, the Commentary on Genesis vi:6, and xxvi, he reaffirmed the distinction of the secret and revealed will of God, which we are unable to harmonize, but for this reason he deems it safest to adhere to the revealed will and to avoid speculations on the impenetrable mysteries of the hidden will. "Melius et tutius est consistere ad praesepe Christi hominis; plurimum enim periculi in eo est, si in illos labyrinthos divinitatis te involvas." On Gen. 6:6, in the Erl. ed. of Exeg. Opera, II. 170. Melanchthon, no doubt in part under the influence of this controversy, abandoned his early predestinarianism as a Stoic error (1535), and adopted the synergistic theory. Luther allowed this change without adopting it himself, and abstained from further discussion of these mysteries. The Formula of Concord re-asserted in the strongest terms Luther’s doctrine of the slavery of the human will, but weakened his doctrine of predestination, and assumed a middle ground between Augustinianism and semi-Pelagianism or synergism.541541    Form. Conc., Art. II. and XI. See Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, I. 313 sq. In like manner the Roman Catholic Church, while retaining the greatest reverence for St. Augustin and indorsing his anthropology, never sanctioned his views on total depravity and unconditional predestination, but condemned them, indirectly, in the Jansenists.542542    Ibid., I. 102 sqq. Among the condemned propositions of Quesnel are these: "The grace of Christ is necessary for every good work; without it nothing can be done.""The will of man, before conversion by prevenient grace, is capable of all evil and incapable of good."


Final Alienation.


The Erasmus-Luther controversy led to some further personalities in which both parties forgot what they owed to their cause and their own dignity. Erasmus wrote a bitter retort, entitled "Hyperaspistes," and drove Luther’s predestinarian views to fatalistic and immoral consequences. He also addressed a letter of complaint to Elector John. The outrages of the Peasants’ War confirmed him in his apprehensions. He was alienated from Melanchthon and Justus Jonas. He gave up correspondence with Zwingli, and rather rejoiced in his death.543543    When he heard of it in 1531, he wrote to a friend, "It is a good thing that two of their leaders have perished,—Zwingli on the battle-field, and Oecolampadius shortly after of fever and abscess."—Op. III. 1422. He spoke of the Reformation as a tragedy, or rather a comedy which always ended in a marriage. He regarded it as a public calamity which brought ruin to arts and letters, and anarchy to the Church.544544    He gives a deplorable picture of the demoralizing effects of the Reformation in a letter to Geldenhauer in 1526, Opera X. 1578-1580, quoted in full in Latin and German by Döllinger, Die Reformation, I. 13-15. The Strasburg preachers, Capito, Bucer, and Hedio, tried to refute the charges in 1530. Erasmus again came out with the charge, among others, that luxury was never greater, nor adulteries more frequent, than among the self-styled evangelicals, and appeals in confirmation to admissions of Luther, Melanchthon, and Oecolampadius. Some of his last letters, discovered and published by Horawitz (Erasmiana, 1885, No. IV. p. 44 sqq.), contain similar complaints.

He was summoned to the Diet of Augsburg, 1530, as a counsellor of the Emperor, but declined because he was sick and conscious of his inability to please either party. He wrote, however, to Cardinal Campeggio, to the bishop of Augsburg, and other friends, to protest against settling questions of doctrine by the sword. His remedy for the evils of the Church was mutual forbearance and the correction of abuses. But his voice was not heeded; the time for compromises and half measures had passed, and the controversy took its course. He devoted his later years chiefly to the editing of new editions of his Greek Testament, and the writings of the church fathers.

Luther abandoned Erasmus, and abused him as the vainest creature in the world, as an enraged viper, a refined Epicurean, a modern Lucian, a scoffer, a disguised atheist, and enemy of all religion.545545    In his letter to Link, March 7, 1529 (in De Wette, III. 426 sq.), he calls Erasmus "ἄθεον, Lucianumque, Epicurum," and in a letter to his son John, 1533 (De Wette, IV. 497), he says: "Erasmus, hostis omnium religiorum et inimicus singularis Christi, Epicuri Lucianique perfectum exemplar et idea." Comp. his judgments in the Tischreden, LXI. 93-113 (Erl. ed.). We gladly return from this gross injustice to his earlier estimate, expressed in his letter to Erasmus as late as April, 1524: "The whole world must bear witness to your successful cultivation of that literature by which we arrive at a true understanding of the Scriptures; and this gift of God has been magnificently and wonderfully displayed in you, calling for our thanks."



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