Martin Luther vs. Desiderius Erasmus

One of the more interesting historical “debates” took place between Martin Luther and Desiderius Erasmus concerning the topic of free will.

On the one side, Erasmus argued that God had granted humanity free will, so that we were able to choose to do good or evil. Luther countered that sin robs humanity of the capability of free will, because once we sin we are completely under the control of Satan.

Luther believed in a strict predestination view of reality, in that everything that has happened and will happen has been preordained by God. Erasmus contended that, while God could of course predetermine the course of events, He chose not to, allowing humans to decide their fates for themselves.

I much prefer Erasmus’s view of things. Predestination has always seemed a pointless and ultimately self-defeating view of reality to me. If our fates are predetermined, then why bother trying to improve ourselves? But many Christians are, knowingly or not, followers of Luther rather than Erasmus. The concept of, “saved by Grace, and Grace alone”, comes not from Erasmus, but Luther, whose predestination ruled out the utility of good acts.

It is also interesting to compare the characters of these two men. Erasmus was a peacemaker, searching for reconciliation between opposing viewpoints. He was often criticized as being too ready to reach a compromise, and maybe even a bit cowardly in not openly challenging his opponents. Luther was certainly willing to confront, having the nerve to take on the most powerful institution of his day. Whereas Erasmus was scholarly and erudite to a fault, preferring to write in Latin, Luther took on the task of translating the Bible into vernacular German. Eramus’s intended audience was other scholars; Luther’s intended audience was anyone who could read.

Finally, as far as I know Eramus died without any scandal or controversy attached to his name. Luther, on the other hand, would have had a much happier legacy had he died at a younger age, or refrained from publishing as he aged. His last years unfortunately saw him deteriorate into a vile antisemitism, which, given his influence in the development of the German culture and nation, would have dire consequences for the future.