At its most basic level, the debate between Luther and Erasmus was not just an argument about how much or how little a Christian participates in his salvation. It was about the central theme of the Christian religion. But before we jump into the debate itself, it is probably best that some historical context is provided to help us acclimate ourselves to the topic. In September of 1524, Philip Melanchthon was the first Wittenberger to respond to Erasmus’ tract, De libero arbitrio (The Free Choice of the Will). Melanchthon was also among the few Wittenberg scholars who registered a positive reaction to Erasmus’ work.
Melanchthon believed that it was fitting that Erasmus had challenged Luther to a debate on the central theme of the Christian religion. But others in Wittenberg were not ready to speak with such kindness about the tract, especially in regards to what were perceived to be Erasmus’ more malicious comments about Luther.
So it certainly was not by chance, writes the Luther scholar Martin Brecht “that at that time Luther commented in the preface to his translation of Ecclesiastes that that book had been written against free will since it showed that all human undertakings were useless.”
In a sermon on October 9th of that year, Luther went further, describing human beings as helplessly caught by Satan and with a will totally incapable of doing what it should. In the same sermon, Luther’s famous image from Psalm 73 also emerged of man being ridden by either God or the devil:
Thus the human will is placed between the two like a beast of burden. If God rides it, it wills and goes where God wills, as the psalm says: “I am become as a beast [before thee] and I am always with thee” [Ps. 73:22 f.]. If Satan rides it, it wills and goes where Satan wills; nor can it choose to run to either of the two riders or to seek him out, but the riders themselves contend for the possession and control of it (LW 33, pg. 65).
According to Luther, only Christ the Bridegroom can free the soul by making it his Bride and so releasing it from the power of Satan.
On November 1, 1524, Luther finally sat down to read Erasmus’ tract. Despite his objections to the accuracy of the content, Luther did read De libero arbitrio all the way through. Having done so, Luther could not resist responding to Erasmus. The topic was too enticing, too vital to Christian faith and life, and Erasmus had provided the perfect opportunity to engage in the battle. Luther’s allies and opponents also would not allow him to put off responding to Erasmus indefinitely. They badgered him constantly to write a response.
Joachim Camerarius, an acquaintance of both men, urged Luther to finish his response. Camerarius knew many humanists and a host of reformers in Germany were awaiting Luther’s direction in the fundamental matter of the human will. Thus, when a response was not forthcoming, Camerarius even appealed to Luther’s new wife, Katie. And so it was at her urging, that Luther began to draft his response to Erasmus sometime around September of 1525.
On the 28th of September, despite pressure to find common ground with Erasmus, Luther told his friend, Georg Spalatin, that he could not concede that Erasmus had said anything right.
When Luther’s work was done, it did not bear the moderate voice Melanchthon had hoped for. Instead, Luther had written a sharp reply filled with epithets accusing Erasmus of being an enemy of Christ, an Epicurean, and a skeptic. Luther had made it clear that no quarter would be asked or given in the debate because this was no mere academic debate. This was a battle over the central theme of the Christian religion.
But apart from Martin Luther's opinion of him, who was Erasmus? We will pick up the answer to this question in Part 2 next week.