Luther versus Erasmus: Bound to Be Free (Part 5)

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For Erasmus, it would be better for people in general to bear the disease of moralism and choice than to be cured of it by the preaching and teaching of God’s unconditional election of sinners in Christ.

For Erasmus, the logic of free choice and not statements about election served the common good in both a theologically edifying and practical way. Or, to use his metaphor in The Freedom of the Will, “There are some bodily diseases that are less evil to bear than their removal, as though a man were to bathe in the warm blood of murdered babes to avoid leprosy, so there are some errors that it would cause less damage to conceal than to uproot.”

For Erasmus, God’s grace is ultimately harmful if divorced from human responsibility.

Erasmus was concerned about what would happen to people’s morals if they were taught about Luther's doctrine of election. According to Erasmus, such matters were better kept behind the closed doors of academia unless Luther wanted the common herd, as Erasmus referred to them, getting the wrong idea.

If the doctrine of election were popularly taught people would take no responsibility for their sin and salvation. There would be no accountability. No one would strive after virtue and goodness. No one would want to love God. In other words, the doctrine of election is like some bodily disease, as cited above, that “are less evil to bear than their removal.” For Erasmus, it would be better for people in general to bear the disease of moralism and choice than to be cured of it by the preaching and teaching of God’s unconditional election of sinners in Christ.

For, “what weakling,” wrote Erasmus,

...will be able to bear the endless and wearisome warfare against his flesh? What evildoer will take pains to correct his life? Who will be able to bring himself to love God with all his heart when He created Hell seething with eternal torments in order to punish His own misdeeds in His victims as though He took delight in human torments?

The argument for human responsibility which emerged in Erasmus’ tract gave people the freedom to pursue righteousness, but only a little bit of freedom because human beings were, “by nature dull-witted and sensual, prone to unbelief, inclined to evil, with a bent to blasphemy, so that there is no need to add fuel to the furnace.”

The average person needed discipline, guidance, and authority. As far as Erasmus was concerned this was the primary role of the church: to hold out grace in quantities sufficient for people to make choices and behave morally.

Erasmus explained,

Since the Spirit does not furnish the whole truth to anyone, even he who has the Spirit may be mistaken or deceived in some single point. So much for those who so easily reject the interpretation of the Fathers in Holy Scripture and oppose their views to ours as if delivered by an oracle. Finally, even supposing that the Spirit of Christ could have allowed his people to err in trivial matters on which the salvation of men does not greatly depend, how can it be believed that for more than thirteen hundred years he would have concealed the error from the Church and not have found anybody among so many saintly men worthy to be inspired with the knowledge of what these people claim to be the chief doctrine of the whole gospel?

For Luther, on the other hand, when it came to the preaching of the cross there was no distinguishing as Erasmus had done, between sinners and the pious, elect and non-elect. Regardless of one’s standing corum hominibus (before men), the free will disappeared corum Deo (before God).

Erasmus wanted to argue to the contrary that God “wishes us to pray without ceasing, to watch, to fight, and to contend for the prize of eternal life.” And in that pursuit, “we are afflicted... we are tortured, we are killed and thus the grace of God in us strives, conquers, and triumphs.”

Thus, a radical distinction must be made between Luther and Erasmus at this point. Luther was not attempting to argue out of Erasmus’ assumptions about limited grace. Instead, when Luther proclaimed that, “life is born in death,” he was asserting “that the human will must be mortified before God reaches it. This is the significance of the cross. It is God’s way to set us free from the bondage to ourselves, in order to make us free for the recognition and glorification of the will of God.”