by Joshua Horn
from Bondage of the Will by Martin Luther
In 1525 Martin Luther published a book entitled, De Servo Arbitrio, or in English, Bondage of the Will. He wrote it in response to On Free Will by Desiderus Erasmus. In his book, Erasmus argued that man has free will and he must chose to be saved. Luther replied to him in Bondage of the Will and pointed out many flaws in his arguments. Three of the most important flaws were that Erasmus twisted scripture to meet his own interpretation, that he rejected the Bible rather than split with the Pope, and lastly that he contradicted himself in his definition for free will.
The first of Erasmus’ flaws was that he frequently twisted scripture to match his own opinions. When he deals with the text where God says that he hardened Pharaoh's heart1, he claims that God really meant that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. Luther says, “When God says: ‘I will harden the heart of Pharaoh’, you change the persons, and take it thus: ‘Pharaoh hardens himself by my long-suffering’!”2 When the Bible says this, “I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing,”3 Erasmus says that “‘nothing’ may mean the same as ‘a little imperfect something.’”4 This is clear twisting of the words of scripture. If you take that nothing means ‘an imperfect little something’, than most of the doctrines of the Bible fall apart. From these two examples it is clear that Erasmus was forced to twist the words of scripture to make them fit with his position.
Erasmus’ second logical fallacy is that he would rather give up the scriptures than contradict the Pope. He was so afraid of contention that he was willing to give up what he knew was true rather than fight for it. Luther says this to Erasmus, “For your teaching is designed to induce us, out of consideration for Popes, princes, and peace, to abandon and yield up … the sure word of God. But when we abandon that, we abandon God, faith, salvation, and all Christianity!”5 The Bible says in Matthew 10:28, “And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”6 The basic problem is that Erasmus feared man more than God.
Erasmus admitted in his book that free will is a slave to sin and can not will to do anything good. He says that, “the human will after sin is so depraved that it has lost its freedom and is forced to serve sin, and cannot recall itself to a better state.”7 But later in the book he claims that a human can will to seek God! This is a clear contradiction. Luther says this, “You say that ‘free-will’ is a power of the human will by which a man can apply himself to good; but here you say, and and approve of its being said, that man without grace cannot will good.”8 Erasmus realized that free will could not do any good, but he still contradicted himself and said that it is man who chooses to be saved.
We have just seen Erasmus' three most important mistakes. They are that he twisted the words of scripture, that he rejected the Bible rather than split with the Pope, and thirdly that he contradicted himself in his definition of free will. After Luther pointed out Erasmus' fallacies and destroyed his arguments, there were no good arguments left for free will. Many people today who defend free will have the same problems and make the same logical fallacies as Erasmus did when arguing with Martin Luther. Being able to recognize these problems can help us defend the Biblical doctrine of the will.
1 Exodus 7:13, etc.
2Martin Luther, Bondage of the Will (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House Company, 2003) trans. J. I. Packer and O.R. Johnston, p. 195
3 John 15:5, KJV
4 Bondage of the Will, p. 260
5 Ibid, p. 91
6 Matthew 10:28, KJV
7 As quoted in Bondage of the Will, p. 145
8 Ibid, p. 145
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