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affirming the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith
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1716 Western Center Blvd. Ft. Worth, TX 76131
affirming the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith
and firmly standing on Biblical truths found in the principles of the five Solas
A Chronology of the Life of Christ
Who was right - Erasmus or Luther?
Martin Luther’s The Bondage Of The Will, of which a full text will be presented below, was said by Luther himself to be one of his very best works. Luther wrote it in the autumn of 1525 in reply to a criticism of his teaching which Erasmus of Rotterdam had published under the title of De libero arbitrio a year earlier.
Erasmus had been for several years under diverse and increasing pressure to declare himself openly for or against Luther. He was considerably senior to Luther, his reputation as the most brilliant scholar in Europe was established, and his support was coveted by both Lutherans and anti-Lutherans. Yet, although between them he was variously subjected to cajolery and threats, provocation and the offer of bribes, he had steadfastly refused to commit himself.
At first it seemed to many on both sides that Erasmus ought in honesty to declare in favor of Luther. He had, after all, wielded the his pen in the cause of reform long before Luther. He had incurred the enmity of theologians, monks, and ecclesiastics, who were now also the enemies of Luther; and he seemed to show himself Luther’s friend when he spoke well of him personally, pointed out that the best sort of men approved of him, and insisted that his teaching should not be condemned out of hand as heretical, but should be given a fair hearing before competent judges. He also offered the flimsiest excuses for refusing to pass judgment himself—he had not read Luther’s writings and had no time to do so, he was not theologically qualified, and in any case he had no authority to act in this matter.
Erasmus’ wish was to remain neutral through the whole affair, as he stated again and again, and as he made clear to Luther himself, from whom he received a letter appealing for his support in 1519. Luther had written (March 28) as a disciple to a master, and Erasmus may well have been moved by his appeal, since he delayed over two months to reply. Yet when he did so (May 30), although he wrote in very friendly and even encouraging terms, he still preserved his neutrality. Not surprisingly, therefore, he came to be accused by both sides of cowardice, timeserving, and self-interest.
When powerful men kept urging him to write against Luther, promising him preference if he would, Erasmus still refused to commit himself. This had little to do with either cowardice or self-interest, but much with his concern for “good letters” which were being newly brought to light by the Humanistic scholarship of the Renaissance. These “good letters,” to which Erasmus had dedicated his life, had been under attack by the opponents of reform, particularly the theologians and monks, ever since he had published his edition of the Greek New Testament (1516). They were suspected of being at the root of both his own and Luther’s reforming ideas—for Luther had welcomed the new learning, and had eagerly used Erasmus’ Greek Testament from the moment it appeared. So, If Erasmus allied himself with Luther, “good letters” would come under still heavier attack; and he had no confidence in either the ability or the will of the Lutherans to defend them. On the other hand, it would be difficult to cast his vote against Luther without virtually surrendering all he had written about the need for reform. There might not be safety in neutrality, but there was less danger than in taking sides. In any case, he could not write against Luther, for he could not rid himself of the thought that in attacking him he “might be found fighting against the Spirit of God.”
Nevertheless, Luther’s tone after 1520 did much to alienate whatever sympathy Erasmus had for the Lutheran version of reform. Even though he disapproved of the pope's condemnation of Luther, he approved even less of Luther’s burning it; and he was put off by Luther’s attacks on the church, in his book On The Babylonian Captivity of the Church. He had rather sharply distinguished Luther from his followers, but now Luther's actions encouraged rebellion in the church, and to that Erasmus would not be a party. He wanted to dissociate himself from Luther if he could find a way of doing it that would not identify him with that cause.
In the meantime, because of his refusal to join them, Erasmus came under fire from Luther’s supporters, who sought to goad him into changing his mind. A climax was reached with the publication of Ulrich yon Hutten’s Expostulation, a strong repudiation of the Catholic church. This hurt the Lutherans, and in the spring of 1524 Luther wrote to Erasmus proposing a truce. He said if Erasmus would keep quiet about the Lutherans, Luther would see to it that they kept quiet about him; that he recognized that Erasmus had neither the spirit nor the stamina to fight on his side, but he was doing great work with his scholarship, and if he would simply stick to that, all would be well. Erasmus was naturally stung by this, as his reply (May 8) shows; but even had he not been, Luther’s appeal for a truce came too late. The die was cast, and in September the De libero arbitrio appeared. Erasmus had found a way of dissociating himself from Luther without in any way repudiating his call for reform, which they shared in common. This way, he could take issue with him on a point of doctrine about grace and human freedom (free will), and still believe in reform.
In his Assertio, published in 1520, Luther had utterly denied the reality of human freedom and asserted that everything that happens, happens by absolute necessity. This was in fiat contradiction to the teaching of the Catholic church. Erasmus thought Luther was wrong; not only in what he taught, but in publicizing it.
The full title of Erasmus’ work was A Diatribe or Discourse concerning Free Choice (De libero arbitrio diatribe sire collatio). It was written in what Erasmus considered a thoroughly peace-loving spirit, with no intention of attacking Luther personally, while taking strong exception to his ideas. He made no claim to solve the problem of grace and free will but only to set the two views side by side, stating which one he thought the most probable, and leaving it to his readers to make up their own minds. That is why he called his book a Diatribe or Discourse. It was in deliberate contrast to Luther’s very dogmatic Assertion.
In the Diatribe, Erasmus begins with a lengthy Preface and a short Introduction. He states the problem and the difficulties that it raises. He points out that Luther has the weighty authority of the church fathers against him, but agrees to abide by the verdict of Scripture on the subject, since that is all that Luther will accept. He also emphasizes that the issue here is not the authority of Scripture, but of its interpretation, and he raises the question how one can know whose interpretation is correct. He then proceeds to a series of passages that seem to support free choice and some that seem to oppose it. He then scrutinizes arguments of Luther in his Assertion, and ends with an Epilogue in which he leaves the reader to judge.
Erasmus believed that it is essential that man has freedom of choice (free will) and without it there is no sense in praise or blame, since he merits neither; nor would there be any sense in God’s law or his commandments. He said to teach men that they have no real choice can only foster irresponsibility and encourage antinomianism and that if man acts solely from necessity, and has no freedom, he cannot possibly deserve reward or punishment. Therefore, if God rewards and punishes men he is unjust. He said his concern for human freedom is a concern for God's character, not that he is not mindful of God’s grace, without which no man can possibly be saved. He said that man must have the freedom to choose or refuse grace, so that if they are damned for the lack of it, their damnation will be what he deserved.
When the Diatribe arrived at Wittenberg, it was read by others; and although Luther was disgusted at what he regarded as the “rubbish” that Erasmus had written, he was at first not inclined to waste time answering it. It was widely circulated and Luther’s supporters persuaded him that he really must take issue with it. When he did, he admitted that Erasmus had hit upon the real bone of contention between them, and he set about refuting him in a way that was hardly aimed at peace, taking his arguments apart point by point in a book nearly four times the length of the Diatribe.
Even though a complete translation of Luther's reply, The Bondage Of The Will, will follow, here are its main points: First of all, neither man’s salvation nor his damnation has anything to do with merit. Merit has no place in our relationship with the Almighty, and to teach that it has can only lead to legalism and a vain striving for salvation by works. There is a reward for the righteous and punishment for the wicked, but to seek righteousness in order to merit the reward is the surest way to find neither. Luther insists that God is not moved by the merits or demerits of men and does not do anything based on what men do. He said this is essential to the freedom of God, whatever it does to his justice. To deny it is to undermine the gospel of grace; indeed, it is to deny God himself. For God’s freedom is precisely the freedom of grace and of the divine love revealed in Christ, which ignores the schemes of merit and reward. Not that this in the least makes God’s law and commandments meaningless; on the contrary, it discloses their true meaning, which is ultimately a demand for just such love as is seen in Christ. Therefore, instead of showing man what he ought to do and can do, they show him what he ought but cannot do - unless he is radically transformed by grace, that is, by God himself.
Erasmus was deeply hurt and offended by the tone of Luther’s book. He took it as a personal attack upon himself. He was not in the least soothed by a letter which he received from Luther in 1526, in which Luther half apologized for the outspokenness of some of his statements. He said it was due to his temperament, and suggested that there should be no more attacking one another, and he hoped that God would grant Erasmus to see the light!
Erasmus, however, was already busy with a reply, called A Defense of the Diatribe (Hyperaspistes diatribae). It had a considerable circulation, but Luther was never moved to make any reply to it. Erasmus and Luther never met and no other correspondence passed between them. In his earlier days, Luther expressed enthusiastic admiration for Erasmus’ work in the study of languages and literature, which he believed to be necessary of any rediscovery of the word of God; and made use of Erasmus’ Greek New Testament. At the same time, he was doubtful about Erasmus’ theology. After using his New Testament he wrote to his friend Spalatin on October 19, 1516, pointing out Erasmus’ misguided understanding of Paul and criticizing his inclination for Jerome, with the request that Spalatin should pass this on to Erasmus. Spalatin did so, without naming Luther, but referring to him simply as an Augustinian.
Luther had written humbly and courteously and with high admiration. His letter was passed on almost verbatim. Yet only a short while after (March 1, 1517) he wrote to another correspondent, John Lang: "I read our Erasmus and my enthusiasm for him decreases daily.… I fear he does not sufficiently exalt Christ and God …; things human count more with him than things divine."
The publication of the Diatribe and the Hyperaspiste made Luther bitter toward Erasmus. He had not spoken flatteringly about Erasmus, but now that he had been directly criticized by him he became offensive, calling Erasmus a heretic, a heathen, an atheist; and he said “I owe nothing to Erasmus” and “I hate Erasmus with all my heart.”
Erasmus no doubt felt bitter, also. But he was the more pragmatic, believing that God might be using Luther as he used Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar. And though he came to question whether it was a good or an evil spirit that animated Luther, he could still write: "The theologians curse Luther, and in cursing him curse the truth delivered by Christ to the Apostles.… No fact is plainer than that this tempest has been sent from heaven by God’s anger."  "Luther’s books were burnt when they ought to have been read and studied by serious persons. There was too much haste to persecute; we tolerate Jews and Bohemians, we might have tolerated Luther."
For Erasmus and his relations with Luther see: J. A. Froude, Life and Letters of Erasmus (London, 1900), pp. 214 ff.; A. Freitag, Einleitung zu Luthers De servo arbitrio, WA 18, 551 ff.; K. A. Meissinger, Erasmus von Rotterdam (2nd ed.; Berlin, 1948), pp. 244 ff.; M. Mann Phillips, Erasmus and the Northern Renaissance (London, 1949), pp. 150 ff.; J. Boisset, Érasme et Luther, Libre ou Serf-arbitre? (Paris, 1962), pp. 5 ff.; R. H. Bainton, Erasmus of Christendom (New York: Scribner’s, 1969), pp. 151 ff.
WA, Br 1, 361–63; LW 48, 117–19.
Erasmus to Luther, May 30, 1519. Allen 3, No. 980.
See Luther’s letter to Spalatin, October 19, 1516. WA, Br 1, 70–71; LW 48, 23–26.
Letter to Louis Marlianus, March 25, 1520. Allen 4, No. 1195.
WA 6, 497–573; LW 36, 11–126.
Hutten’s Expostulation (Expostulatio) was published in July, 1523, and challenged Erasmus to commit himself on the issue of the Reformation. Erasmus responded with his Sponge (Spongia), published in September, 1523.
WA, Br 3, 258–259; LW 49, 77–81.
An Assertion of All the Articles of Martin Luther Condemned by the Latest Bull of Leo X (Assertio omnium articulorum M. Lutheri per bullam Leonis X. novissimam damnatorum; December, 1520). WA 7, 94–151.
Article 36 (quoted p. 160, n. 86). Interestingly enough, the German version of this article in Defense and Explanation of All the Articles (Grund und Ursach aller Artikel), which was published in 1520 for more popular consumption, reads more mildly, making no mention of “necessity.” Cf. WA 7, 444–451; LW 32, 92–94.
For the translation of arbitrium as “choice” rather than “will” see pp. xii and 102 f. (Erasmus’ definition).
And also those of his associates; partly perhaps to avoid seeming to attack only Luther, partly to show that he and his party could not agree among themselves. Erasmus seems to have had Karlstadt particularly in mind—the “harder” opinion referred to on pp. 112 f. and 116 f. appears to have been his. See Meissinger, op. cit., p. 276, and EAS 4 (which contains the Latin text of De libero arbitrio and Hyperaspistes I with German translation, introduction, and notes by W. Lesowsky), xii and 57.
Letter from Melanchthon to Erasmus, September 30, 1524. C. R. 1, 674.
See p. 16: “trash … refuse … ordure.”
There were six printings within two months (at Basel, Antwerp, Cologne, Strassburg) and a seventh (at Vienna) a few months later. A German version was made by Cochlaeus and Emser shortly after it first appeared, but Erasmus judged it too free and forbade its publication. A translation by Herman von Altdorff appeared in 1526. Cf. EAS 4, xv and 203, n. 12.
See pp. 35 and 294.
Yet Luther acknowledges that man possesses a capacity for response to God’s grace which other creatures do not (see p. 67); and elsewhere he can explain why God elects this man and not that by saying: “This difference is to be ascribed to man, not to the will of God, for the promises of God are universal. He will have all men to be saved. Hence it is not the fault of our Lord God, who promises salvation, but it is our fault if we are unwilling to believe it” (WA, TR 4, No. 4665). Cf. LCC XVII, 25 f.
And a widely circulated attack, for it soon ran into several editions, and the first Latin edition was almost immediately followed by Justus Jonas’ German translation. Within twelve months it appeared in Latin eight times (at Wittenberg, Augsburg, Strassburg, Nuremberg) and in German twice (Wittenberg and Augsburg).
Hyperaspistes means “protector”—literally “one who holds a shield (aspis) over.” But the Greek word aspis can also mean a viper, and Luther referred to Erasmus’ forthcoming work as “that viper,” vipera illa, in a letter to Spalatin, March 27, 1526. WA, Br 4, 42; LW 49, 145.
Part I (which is nearly three times as long as the Diatribe) first appeared at Basel, and within six months there were six further editions (at Basel, Antwerp, Cracow, Paris). Of Part II (which is twice as long as Part I) there were three editions at Basel in as many months, and a fourth at Antwerp in 1528.
Letter to Eobanus Hessus, March 29, 1523. WA, Br 3, 49–50; LW 49, 32–35.
WA, Br 1, 70–71; LW 48, 23–26.
WA, Br 1, 90; LW 48, 40.
WA, TR 1, No. 173 (1532); CL 8, 28.
WA, TR 1, No. 494 (1533); CL 8, 65; LW 54, 84.
Letter to Duke George of Saxony, December 19., 1524. Allen 4, No. 1195.
To the Bishop of Augsburg, August 26, 1528. Allen 7, No. 2029.
To Jacopo Sadoleto, May 7, 1530. Allen 7, No. 2315
The Bondage of the Will
by Martin Luther
To the Venerable Master Erasmus of Rotterdam, Martin Luther sends grace and peace in Christ. [Luther explains his delay in replying and admits Erasmus' superior talent] That I have taken so long to reply to your Diatribe Concerning Free choice, venerable Erasmus, has been contrary to everyone’s expectation and to my own custom; for hitherto I have seemed not only willing to accept, but eager to seek out, opportunities of this kind for writing. There will perhaps be some surprise at this new and unwonted forbearance—or fear!—in Luther, who has not been roused even by all the speeches and letters his adversaries have flung about, congratulating Erasmus on his victory and chanting in triumph, “Ho, ho! Has that Maccabee, that most obstinate Assertor, at last met his match, and dares not open his mouth against him?” Yet not only do I not blame them, but of myself I yield you a palm such as I have never yielded to anyone before; for I confess not only that you are far superior to me in powers of eloquence and native genius (which we all must admit, all the more as I am an uncultivated fellow who has always moved in uncultivated circles), but that you have quite damped my spirit and eagerness, and left me exhausted before I could strike a blow.
There are two reasons for this: first, your cleverness in treating the subject with such remarkable and consistent moderation as to make it impossible for me to be angry with you; and secondly, chance by which you say nothing on this important subject that has not been said before. Indeed, you say so much less, and attribute so much more to free choice than the Sophists have hitherto done (a point on which I shall have more to say later) that it really seemed superfluous to answer the arguments you use. They have been refuted already so often by me, and beaten down and completely pulverized in Philip Melanchthon’s Commonplaces—an unanswerable little book which in my judgment deserves not only to be immortalized but even canonized. Compared with it, your book struck me as so cheap and paltry that I felt profoundly sorry for you, defiling as you were your very elegant and ingenious style with such trash, and quite disgusted at the utterly unworthy matter that was being conveyed in such rich ornaments of eloquence, like refuse or ordure being carried in gold and silver vases.
You seem to have felt this yourself, from the reluctance with which you undertook this piece of writing. No doubt your conscience warned you that, no matter what powers of eloquence you brought to the task, you would be unable so to gloss it over as to prevent me from stripping away the seductive charm of your words and discovering the dregs beneath, since although I am unskilled in speech, I am not unskilled in knowledge, by the grace of God. For I venture thus with Paul II Cor. 11:6 to claim knowledge for myself that I confidently deny to you, though I grant you eloquence and native genius such as I willingly and very properly disclaim for myself.
What I thought, then, was this. If there are those who have imbibed so little of our teaching or taken so insecure a hold of it, strongly supported by Scripture though it is, that they can be moved by these trivial and worthless though highly decorative arguments of Erasmus, then they do not deserve that I should come to their rescue with an answer. Nothing could be said or written that would be sufficient for such people, even though it were by recourse to thousands of books a thousand times over, and you might just as well plow the seashore and sow seed in the sand or try to fill a cask full of holes with water. Those who have imbibed the Spirit who holds sway in our books have had a sufficient service from us already, and they can easily dispose of your performances; but as for those who read without the Spirit, it is no wonder if they are shaken like a reed by every wind. Why, God himself could not say enough for such people, even if all his creatures were turned into tongues. Hence I might well have decided to leave them alone, upset as they were by your book, along with those who are delighted with it and declare you the victor.
It was, then, neither pressure of work, nor the difficulty of the task, nor your great eloquence, nor any fear of you, but sheer disgust, anger, and contempt, or—to put it plainly—my considered judgment on your Diatribe that damped my eagerness to answer you. I need hardly mention here the good care you take, as you always do, to be everywhere evasive and equivocal; you fancy yourself steering more cautiously than Ulysses between Scylla and Charybdis as you seek to assert nothing while appearing to assert something. How, I ask you, is it possible to have any discussion or reach any understanding with such people, unless one is clever enough to catch Proteus? What I can do in this matter, and what you have gained by it, I will show you later, with Christ’s help.
There have, then, to be special reasons for my answering you at this point. Faithful brethren in Christ are urging me to do so, and point out that everyone expects it, since the authority of Erasmus is not to be despised, and the truth of Christian doctrine is being imperiled in the hearts of many. Moreover, it has at length come home to me that my silence has not been entirely honorable, and that I have been deluded by my mundane prudence—or knavery—into insufficient awareness of my duty, whereby I am under obligation both to the wise and to the foolish Rom. 1:14, especially when I am called to it by the entreaties of so many brethren. For although the subject before us demands more than an external teacher, and besides him who plants and him who waters outwardly I Cor. 3:7, it requires also the Spirit of God to give the growth and to be a living teacher of living things inwardly (a thought that has been much in my mind), yet since the Spirit is free, and blows not where we will but where he wills [John 3:8], we ought to have observed that rule of Paul, “Be urgent in season and out of season” II Tim. 4:2, for we do not know at what hour the Lord is coming Matt. 24:42. There may be, I grant, some who have not yet sensed the Spirit who informs my writings, and who have been bowled over by that Diatribe of yours; perhaps their hour has not yet come.
And who knows but that God may even deign to visit you, excellent Erasmus, through such a wretched and frail little vessel of his as myself, so that in a happy hour—and for this I earnestly beseech the Father of mercies through Christ our Lord—I may come to you by means of this book, and win a very dear brother. For although you think and write wrongly about free choice, yet I owe you no small thanks, for you have made me far more sure of my own position by letting me see the case for free choice put forward with all the energy of so distinguished and powerful a mind, but with no other effect than to make things worse than before. That is plain evidence that free choice is a pure fiction; for, like the woman in the Gospel Mark 5:25, the more it is treated by the doctors, the worse it gets. I shall therefore abundantly pay my debt of thanks to you, if through me you become better informed, as I through you have been more strongly confirmed. But both of these things are gifts of the Spirit, not our own achievement. Therefore, we must pray to God that he may open my mouth and your heart, and the hearts of all men, and that he may himself be present in our midst as the master who informs both our speaking and hearing.
But from you, my dear Erasmus, let me obtain this request, that just as I bear with your ignorance in these matters, so you in turn will bear with my lack of eloquence. God does not give all his gifts to one man, and “we cannot all do all things”; or, as Paul says: “There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit” I Cor. 12:4. It remains, therefore, for us to render mutual service with our gifts, so that each with his own gift bears the burden and need of the other. Thus we shall fulfill the law of Christ Gal. 6:2.
REVIEW OF ERASMUS’ PREFACE
Christianity Involves Assertions; Christians Are No Skeptics
I want to begin by referring to some passages in your Preface, in which you rather disparage our case and puff up your own. I note, first, that just as in other books you censure me for obstinate assertiveness, so in this book you say that you are so far from delighting in assertions that you would readily take refuge in the opinion of the Skeptics wherever this is allowed by the inviolable authority of the Holy Scriptures and the decrees of the Church, to which you always willingly submit your personal feelings, whether you grasp what it prescribes or not. This you say is the frame of mind that pleases you.
I take it, as it is only fair to do, that you say these things in a kindly and peace-loving spirit. But if anyone else were to say them, I should probably go for him in my usual manner; and I ought not to allow even you, excellent though your intentions are, to be led astray by this idea. For it is not the mark of a Christian mind to take no delight in assertions; on the contrary, a man must delight in assertions or he will be no Christian. And by assertion—in order that we may not be misled by words—I mean a constant adhering, affirming, confessing, maintaining, and an invincible persevering; nor, I think, does the word mean anything else either as used by the Latins or by us in our time.
I am speaking, moreover, about the assertion of those things which have been divinely transmitted to us in the sacred writings. Elsewhere we have no need either of Erasmus or any other instructor to teach us that in matters which are doubtful or useless and unnecessary, assertions, disputings, and wranglings are not only foolish but impious, and Paul condemns them in more than one place. Nor are you, I think, speaking of such things in this place—unless, in the manner of some foolish orator, you have chosen to announce one topic and discuss another, like the man with the turbot, or else, with the craziness of some ungodly writer, you are contending that the article about free choice is doubtful or unnecessary.
Let Skeptics and Academics keep well away from us Christians, but let there be among us “assertors” twice as unyielding as the Stoics themselves. How often, I ask you, does the apostle Paul demand that plērophoria, as he terms it—that most sure and unyielding assertion of conscience? In Romans 10:10 he calls it “confession,” saying, “with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.” And Christ says: “Everyone who confesses me before men, I also will confess before my Father” Matt. 10:32. Peter bids us give a reason for the hope that is in us, I Peter 3:15. What need is there to dwell on this?
Nothing is better known or more common among Christians than assertion. Take away assertions and you take away Christianity. Why, the Holy Spirit is given them from heaven, that he may glorify Christ [in them] and confess him even unto death—unless it is not asserting when one dies for one’s confession and assertion. Moreover, the Spirit goes to such lengths in asserting, that he takes the initiative and accuses the world of sin, John 16:8, as if he would provoke a fight; and Paul commands Timothy to “exhort” and “be urgent out of season” II Tim. 4:2. But what a droll exhorter he would be, who himself neither firmly believed nor consistently asserted the thing he was exhorting about! Why, I would send him to Anticyra!
But it is I who am the biggest fool, for wasting words and time on something that is clearer than daylight. What Christian would agree that assertions are to be despised? That would be nothing but a denial of all religion and piety, or an assertion that neither religion, nor piety, nor any dogma is of the slightest importance. Why, then, do you too assert, “I take no delight in assertions,” and that you prefer this frame of mind to its opposite?
However, you will wish it to be understood that you have said nothing here about confessing Christ and his dogmas. I am tightly reminded of that, and as a favor to you I will waive my right and my custom, and not judge of your heart, but will leave that for another time or to other people. Meanwhile, I advise you to correct your tongue and your pen and to refrain in future from using such expressions, for however upright and honest your heart may be, your speech (which they say is the index of the heart) is not so. For if you think that free choice is a subject we need know nothing about, and one that has nothing to do with Christ, then your language is correct, but your thought is impious. If, on the other hand, you think it is a necessary subject, then your language is impious, though your thought is correct. And in that case, there was no room for such a mass of complaints about useless assertions and wranglings, for what have these to do with the question at issue?
But what will you say about this statement of yours, in which you do not refer to the subject of free choice alone, but to all religious dogmas in general, when you say that if it were allowed by the inviolable authority of the divine writings and the decrees of the Church, you would take refuge in the opinion of the Skeptics, so far are you from delighting in assertions? What a Proteus is in these words “inviolable authority” and “decrees of the Church”! You pose as having a great reverence for the Scriptures and the Church, and yet make it plain that you wish you were at liberty to be a Skeptic. What Christian would talk like that?
If you are speaking about useless and indifferent dogmas, what are you saying that is new? Who would not wish for the liberty to adopt a skeptical attitude here? Indeed, what Christian does not in fact freely make use of this liberty, and condemn those who are committed and bound to any particular opinion? Unless you take Christians in general, as your words almost suggest, to be the kind of people who hold useless dogmas over which they stupidly wrangle and wage battles of assertions. If on the other hand you are speaking of dogmas that are vital, what more ungodly assertion could anyone make than that he wished for the liberty of asserting nothing in such cases?
This is how a Christian will rather speak: So far am I from delighting in the opinion of the Skeptics that, whenever the infirmity of the flesh will permit, I will not only consistently adhere to and assert the sacred writings, everywhere and in all parts of them, but I will also wish to be as certain as possible in things that are not vital and that lie outside of Scripture. For what is more miserable than uncertainty?
What, furthermore, are we to say of the comment you add: “To which I everywhere willingly submit my personal feelings, whether I grasp what it prescribes or not”? What are you saying, Erasmus? Is it not enough to have submitted your personal feelings to the Scriptures? Do you submit them to the decrees of the Church as well? What can she decree that is not decreed in the Scriptures? Then what becomes of the liberty and power to judge those who make the decrees, as Paul teaches in I Corinthians 14:29: “Let the others judge”? Does it displease you that anyone should sit in judgment on the decrees of the Church, although Paul enjoins it? What new religion, what new humility is this, that you would deprive us by your own example of the power of judging the decrees—of men, and subject us in uncritical submission—to men? Where does the Scripture of God impose this on us?
Then again, what Christian would so throw the injunctions of Scripture and the Church to the winds, as to say, “Whether I grasp them or not”? Do you submit yourself without caring at all whether you grasp them? Anathema be the Christian who is not certain and does not grasp what is prescribed for him! How can he believe what he does not grasp? For by “grasp” you must mean here to “apprehend with certainty” and not to “doubt like a Skeptic”; for otherwise, what is there in any creature that any man could “grasp” if “grasp” meant perfect knowledge and insight? In that case, there would be no possibility that anyone should at the same time grasp some things and not others; for if he had grasped one thing, he would have grasped all—in God, I mean, since whoever does not “grasp” God never “grasps” any part of his creation.
In short, what you say here seems to mean that it does not matter to you what anyone believes anywhere, so long as the peace of the world is undisturbed, and that in case of danger to life, reputation, property, and goodwill, it is permissible to act like the fellow who said, “Say they yea, yea say I; say they nay, nay say I,” and to regard Christian dogmas as no better than philosophical and human opinions, about which it is quite stupid to wrangle, contend, and assert, since nothing comes of that but strife and the disturbance of outward peace. Things that are above us, you would say, are no concern of ours. So, with a view to ending our conflicts, you come forward as a mediator, calling a halt to both sides, and trying to persuade us that we are flourishing our swords about things that are stupid and useless.
That, I say, is what your words seem to mean; and I think you understand, my dear Erasmus, what I am driving at. But as I have said, let the words pass. Meanwhile, I absolve your heart so long as you display it no further. See that you fear the Spirit of God, who tries the minds and hearts, Ps. 7:9; Jer. 11:20, and is not deceived by cleverly devised phrases. For I have said all this so that you may henceforward cease from charging me with obstinacy and willfulness in this matter. By such tactics you only succeed in showing that you foster in your heart a Lucian, or some other pig from Epicurus’ sty who, having no belief in God himself, secretly ridicules all who have a belief and confess it. Permit us to be assertors, to be devoted to assertions and delight in them, while you stick to your Skeptics and Academics till Christ calls you too. The Holy Spirit is no Skeptic, and it is not doubts or mere opinions that he has written on our hearts, but assertions more sure and certain than life itself and all experience.
The Clarity of Scripture
I come now to the second passage, which is of a piece with this. Here you distinguish between Christian dogmas, pretending that there are some which it is necessary to know, and some which it is not, and you say that some are [meant to be] obscure and others quite plain. You thus either play games with other men’s words or else you are trying your hand at a rhetorical sally of your own. You adduce, however, in support of your views, Paul’s saying in Romans 11:33: “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God,” and also that of Isaiah 40:13: “Who has directed the Spirit of the Lord, or what counselor has instructed him?”
It was easy for you to say these things, since you either knew you were not writing to Luther, but for the general public, or you did not reflect that it was Luther you were writing against, whom I hope you allow nonetheless to have some acquaintance with Holy Writ and some judgment in respect of it. If you do not allow this, then I shall force you to it. The distinction I make—in order that I, too, may display a little rhetoric or dialectic—is this: God and the Scripture of God are two things, no less than the Creator and the creature are two things.
That in God there are many things hidden, of which we are ignorant, no one doubts—as the Lord himself says concerning the Last Day: “Of that day no one knows but the Father” Mark 13:32, and in Acts 1:7: “It is not for you to know times and seasons”; and again: “I know whom I have chosen” John 13:18, and Paul says: “The Lord knows those who are his” II Tim. 2:19, and so forth. But that in Scripture there are some things abstruse, and everything is not plain—this is an idea put about by the ungodly Sophists, with those lips you also speak here, Erasmus; but they have never produced, nor can they produce, a single article to prove this mad notion of theirs. Yet with such a phantasmagoria Satan has frightened men away from reading the sacred writings and has made Holy Scripture contemptible, in order to enable the plagues he has bred from philosophy to prevail in the Church.
I admit, of course, that there are many texts in the Scriptures that are obscure and abstruse, not because of the majesty of their subject matter, but because of our ignorance of their vocabulary and grammar; but these texts in no way hinder a knowledge of all the subject matter of Scripture. For what still sublimer thing can remain hidden in the Scriptures, now that the seals have been broken, the stone rolled from the door of the sepulcher, Matt. 27:66; 28:2, and the supreme mystery brought to light, namely, that Christ the Son of God has been made man, that God is three and one, that Christ has suffered for us and is to reign eternally? Are not these things known and sung even in the highways and byways? Take Christ out of the Scriptures, and what will you find left in them?
The subject matter of the Scriptures, therefore, is all quite accessible, even though some texts are still obscure owing to our ignorance of their terms. Truly it is stupid and impious, when we know that the subject matter of Scripture has all been placed in the clearest light, to call it obscure on account of a few obscure words. If the words are obscure in one place, yet they are plain in another; and it is one and the same theme, published quite openly to the whole world, which in the Scriptures is sometimes expressed in plain words, and sometimes lies as yet hidden in obscure words. Now, when the thing signified is in the light, it does not matter if this or that sign of it is in darkness, since many other signs of the same thing are meanwhile in the light. Who will say that a public fountain is not in the light because those who are in a narrow side street do not see it, whereas all who are in the marketplace do see it?
Your reference to the Corycian cave, therefore, is irrelevant; that is not how things are in the Scriptures. Matters of the highest majesty and the profoundest mysteries are no longer hidden away, but have been brought out and openly displayed before the very doors. For Christ has opened our minds so that we may understand the Scriptures, Luke 24:45, and the gospel is preached to the whole creation, Mark 16:15; “Their voice has gone out to all the earth”, Rom. 10:18, and “Whatever was written was written for our instruction” Rom. 15:4; also: “All Scripture inspired by God is profitable for teaching”, II Tim. 3:16. See, then, whether you and all the Sophists can produce any single mystery that is still abstruse in the Scriptures.
It is true that for many people much remains abstruse; but this is not due to the obscurity of Scripture, but to the blindness or indolence of those who will not take the trouble to look at the very clearest truth. It is as Paul says of the Jews in II Corinthians 3:15: “A veil lies over their minds”; and again: “If our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing, whose minds the god of this world has blinded” II Cor. 4:3. With similar temerity a man might veil his own eyes or go out of the light into the darkness and hide himself, and then blame the sun and the day for being obscure. Let miserable men, therefore, stop imputing with blasphemous perversity the darkness and obscurity of their own hearts to the wholly clear Scriptures of God.
Now, when you quote Paul’s saying: “Unsearchable are his judgments” Rom. 11:33, you appear to make the pronoun eius refer to Scripture, but Paul does not say that the judgments of Scripture are unsearchable, but the judgments of God. Similarly, Isaiah 40:13 does not say, “Who has known the mind of the Scripture,” but “the mind of the Lord”; and although Paul asserts that the mind of the Lord is known to Christians, he is referring of course to “the gifts bestowed on us,” as he says in the same passage, I Corinthians 2:12. So you see how inattentively you have looked at these passages of Scripture, and how aptly you have quoted them—just as aptly as in almost all your quotations on behalf of free choice.
Similarly, the examples you go on to give, though not without a suspicion of sarcasm, are quite wide of the mark—things such as the distinction of the Persons of the Trinity, the conjunction of the divine and human natures in Christ, and the unforgivable sin; in all these eases, you say, there is ambiguity that has never been cleared up. If you have in mind the questions debated by the Sophists in connection with these subjects, what has Scripture in its entire innocence of such things done to you that you should make the abuse of it by scoundrelly men a reproach to its purity? Scripture simply confesses the trinity of God and the humanity of Christ and the unforgivable sin, and there is nothing here of obscurity or ambiguity. But how these things can be, Scripture does not say (as you imagine), nor is it necessary to know. It is their own dreams that the Sophists are busy with here, so you should accuse and condemn them, and acquit the Scriptures. If, on the other hand, what you have in mind is the fact itself, again you should not accuse the Scriptures, but the Arians, and those for whom the gospel is so veiled that, through the working of their god Satan, they do not see the very clearest testimonies concerning the trinity of the Godhead and the humanity of Christ.
To put it briefly, there are two kinds of clarity in Scripture, just as there are also two kinds of obscurity: one external and pertaining to the ministry of the Word, the other located in the understanding of the heart. If you speak of the internal clarity, no man perceives one iota of what is in the Scriptures unless he has the Spirit of God. All men have a darkened heart, so that even if they can recite everything in Scripture, and know how to quote it, yet they apprehend and truly understand nothing of it. They neither believe in God, nor that they themselves are creatures of God, nor anything else, as Psalm 13:1 says: “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no god.’” For the Spirit is required for the understanding of Scripture, both as a whole and in any part of it. If, on the other hand, you speak of the external clarity, nothing at all is left obscure or ambiguous, but everything there is in the Scriptures has been brought out by the Word into the most definite light, and published to all the world.
It Is Vital To Know The Truth About Free Choice,
What is still more intolerable is that you count this subject of free choice among the things that are useless and unnecessary, and replace it for us with a list of the things you consider sufficient for the Christian religion. It is such a list as any Jew or Gentile totally ignorant of Christ could certainly draw up with ease, for you make not the slightest mention of Christ, as if you think that Christian godliness can exist without Christ so long as God is worshiped with all one’s powers as being by nature most merciful. What am I to say here, Erasmus? You reek of nothing but Lucian, and you breathe out on me the vast drunken folly of Epicurus. If you consider this subject unnecessary for Christians, then please quit the field; you and I have nothing in common, for I consider it vital.
If it is irreverent, if it is inquisitive, if it is superfluous, as you say, to know whether God foreknows anything contingently; whether our will accomplishes anything in things pertaining to eternal salvation, or simply suffers the action of grace; whether it is of mere necessity that we do, or rather suffer, whatever we do of good or ill; then what, I ask you, is there that it is reverent or serious or useful to know? This is no use at all, Erasmus; you go much too far. It is difficult to attribute this to your ignorance, for you are no longer young, and you have lived among Christians and have long studied Holy Writ, so that you leave no room for us to excuse you or to think well of you. And yet the papists pardon and put up with these enormities of yours simply because you are writing against Luther; otherwise, if Luther were out of the way and you wrote such things, they would get their teeth into you and tear you to shreds.
Let Plato be a friend and Socrates a friend, but truth must be honored above all. For suppose you had no great understanding of the Scriptures or of Christian piety, surely even an enemy of Christians ought to have known what Christians regard as necessary and useful, and what they do not. But when you who are a theologian and a teacher of Christians set out to describe the nature of Christianity for them, so far from showing even your usual skeptical hesitation about what is useful and necessary for them, you actually fall into precisely the opposite error. For contrary to your natural bent, and with an assertion unprecedented for you, you declare that those things are not necessary; whereas, unless they are necessary and known with certainty, then neither God, nor Christ, nor gospel, nor faith, nor anything is left, not even of Judaism, much less of Christianity. By the immortal God, Erasmus, what a “window” or rather, what a wide arena you open for one to act and speak against you! How could you write anything good or true about free choice when by saying things of this kind you confess such an ignorance of Scripture and piety? But I will draw in my sails, and not deal with you here in my own words, as I may perhaps later, but in yours.
Christianity as you describe it includes this among other things: that we should strive with all our might, have recourse to the remedy of penitence, and entreat by all means the mercy of the Lord, without which no human will or endeavor is effective; also, that no one should despair of the pardon of a God who is by nature most merciful. These words of yours, devoid of Christ, devoid of the Spirit, are colder than ice itself, so that they even tarnish the beauty of your eloquence. Perhaps they were dragged out of you, poor fellow, by fear of the pontiffs and tyrants, lest you should seem to be altogether an atheist! They do, however, assert that there are powers in us, that there is a striving with all our powers, that there is a mercy of God, that there are means of entreating mercy, that God is by nature just, by nature most merciful, etc. If, then, anyone does not know what those powers are, what they can achieve, what they can passively receive, what their striving means, and what their efficacy or lack of it may be, what is he to do? What would you tell him to do?
It is, you say, irreverent, inquisitive, and superfluous to want to know whether our will does anything in matters pertaining to eternal salvation or whether it is simply passive under the action of grace. Yet now you contradict this by saying that Christian godliness means striving with all one’s powers, and that without the mercy of God the will is not effective. Here you plainly assert that the will does something in matters pertaining to eternal salvation, when you represent it as striving, though you make it passive when you say it is ineffective apart from mercy. You do not, however, state precisely how this activity and passivity are to be understood, for you take good care to keep us in ignorance of what God’s mercy and our will can achieve, even while you are telling us what they actually do. Thus that prudence of yours makes you veer about, determined not to commit yourself to either side, but to pass safely between Scylla and Charybdis; with the result that, finding yourself battered and buffeted by the waves in the midst of the sea, you assert everything you deny and deny everything you assert.
Let me show you by a few analogies what your theology is like. Suppose that a man who wants to compose a good poem or speech should not consider what sort of talent he has, or ask himself what he is and is not capable of, and what the subject he has chosen requires—plainly ignoring that precept of Horace about “what the shoulders can stand, and what they will refuse to bear—but instead should just rush headlong to work, thinking: “The effort must be made to get it done; it is inquisitive and superfluous to ask whether such learning, such eloquence, such force of intellect as it requires is forthcoming.” Or suppose someone who wants to get a good crop from his land should not be inquisitive and take superfluous care to examine the soil, as Virgil inquisitively and vainly teaches in his Georgics, but should rush blindly on, thinking of nothing but the work, plowing the seashore and sowing the seed in whatever turns up, whether sand or mud. Or suppose someone who is going to war and wants a glorious victory, or who has any other public duty to fulfill, should not be so inquisitive as to give careful thought to what it is in his power to do—whether he has sufficient funds, whether his troops are fit, whether there is any scope for action—but should completely disregard the historian’s remark that “before you act, careful thought is needed, and when you have thought, prompt action,” and rush in with his eyes and ears shut, simply shouting, “War, war!” and press on with the job. What, I ask you, Erasmus, would be your verdict on such poets, farmers, generals, and heads of state? I will add the Gospel saying about one who desires to build a tower, and does not first sit down and count the cost, and whether he has enough to complete it. What is Christ’s verdict on him?
But this is just what you are doing. You prescribe our actions, but forbid us first to examine and measure our powers, or to find out what we can and cannot do, as if that were inquisitive and superfluous and irreverent. Hence, while with your excessive prudence you abhor recklessness and make a show of sober judgment, you arrive at the point of actually teaching the utmost recklessness. For whereas the Sophists are indeed reckless and mad in pursuing their inquisitive inquiries, yet their sin is less serious than yours, who make madness and recklessness the positive point of your teaching. And to make the madness all the greater, you try to persuade us that this recklessness is the most beautiful Christian piety, sobriety, godly seriousness, and salvation; and unless we do as you say, you assert that we are irreverent, inquisitive, and vain—you who are such an enemy of assertions! A fine job you make of avoiding Scylla while you are steering clear of Charybdis!
But it is confidence in your own wits that has driven you to this, for you believe you can so impose on everyone’s intelligence by your eloquence that no one will notice what you cherish in your heart and what your purpose is with these slippery writings of yours. But God is not mocked, Gal. 6:7, and it is not safe to run up against him. Furthermore, if the matter at issue were composing poems, preparing crops, conducting wars or other public undertakings, or building houses, and you had taught us such recklessness, then although it would be intolerable in so eminent a man, you would nevertheless have been deserving of some indulgence, at least among Christians, who set no store on temporal affairs. But when you tell Christians themselves to become reckless workers, and order them not to be inquisitive about what they can and cannot do in the matter of obtaining eternal salvation, this is beyond question the truly unforgivable sin. For as long as they are ignorant of what and how much they can do, they will not know what they should do; and being ignorant of what they should do, they cannot repent if they do wrong; and impenitence is the unforgivable sin. This is what your moderate Skeptical Theology leads us to.
Therefore, it is not irreverent, inquisitive, or superfluous, but essentially salutary and necessary for a Christian, to find out whether the will does anything or nothing in matters pertaining to eternal salvation. Indeed, as you should know, this is the cardinal issue between us, the point on which everything in this controversy turns. For what we are doing is to inquire what free choice can do, what it has done to it, and what is its relation to the grace of God. If we do not know these things, we shall know nothing at all of things Christian, and shall be worse than any heathen. Let anyone who does not feel this confess that he is no Christian, while anyone who disparages or scorns it should know that he is the greatest enemy of Christians. For if I am ignorant of what, how far, and how much I can and may do in relation to God, it will be equally uncertain and unknown to me, what, how far, and how much God can and may do in me, although it is God who works everything in everyone, I Cor. 12:6. But when the works and power of God are unknown, I do not know God himself, and when God is unknown, I cannot worship, praise, thank, and serve God, since I do not know how much I ought to attribute to myself and how much to God. It therefore behooves us to be very certain about the distinction between God’s power and our own, God’s work and our own, if we want to live a godly life.
So you see that this problem is one half of the whole sum of things Christian, since on it both knowledge of oneself and the knowledge and glory of God quite vitally depend. That is why we cannot permit you, my dear Erasmus, to call such knowledge irreverent, inquisitive, and vain. We owe much to you, but godliness claims our all. Why, you yourself are aware that all the good in us is to be ascribed to God, and you assert this in your description of Christianity. But in asserting this, you are surely asserting also that the mercy of God alone does everything, and that our will does nothing, but rather is passive; otherwise, all is not ascribed to God. Yet a little later you say that it is not religious, pious, and salutary to assert or to know this. But it is a mind at variance with itself, uncertain and inexpert in matters of religion, that is compelled to talk like that.
God’s Foreknowledge; Contingency and Necessity 
The other half of the Christian summa is concerned with knowing whether God foreknows anything contingently, and whether we do everything of necessity. And this, too, you find irreverent, inquisitive, and vain, just as all ungodly men do, or rather, as the demons and the damned find it hateful and detestable. You are well advised to steer clear of such questions if you can, but you are a pretty poor rhetorician and theologian when you presume to discuss and expound free choice without the two subjects just mentioned. I will act as a whetstone and, although no rhetorician myself, will teach a distinguished rhetorician his business.
Suppose Quintilian, proposing to write about oratory, were to say: “In my judgment, that stupid and superfluous stuff about choice of subject, arrangement of material, style, memorization, delivery, ought to be omitted; suffice it to know that oratory is the art of speaking well”—would you not ridicule such an exponent of the art? Yet you act no differently yourself. You propose to write about free choice, and you begin by rejecting and throwing away the whole substance and all the elements of the subject on which you are going to write. For you cannot possibly know what free choice is unless you know what the human will can do, and what God does, and whether he foreknows necessarily.
Do not even your rhetoricians teach you that when you are going to speak on any subject, you ought to say first whether it exists, then what it is, what its parts are, what things are contrary to it, akin to it, similar to it, etc.? But you deprive free choice, poor thing! of all these advantages, and lay down no question concerning it, unless perhaps the first, namely, whether it exists; and you do this with arguments, as we shall see, of such a kind that, apart from the elegance of the language, I have never seen a feebler book on free choice. The very Sophists provide at least a better discussion on this subject, for while they have no idea of style, yet when they tackle free choice they do define all the questions connected with it—whether it exists, what it is, what it does, how it is related, etc.—though even they do not succeed in doing what they set out to do. In this book, therefore, I shall press you and all the Sophists hard until you define for me the strength and effectiveness of free choice; and I shall press you, with Christ’s aid, so hard that I hope I shall make you repent of ever having published your Diatribe.
Here, then, is something fundamentally necessary and salutary for a Christian, to know that God foreknows nothing contingently, but that he foresees and purposes and does all things by his immutable, eternal, and infallible will. Here is a thunderbolt by which free choice is completely prostrated and shattered, so that those who want free choice asserted must either deny or explain away this thunderbolt, or get rid of it by some other means. However, before I establish this point by my own argument and the authority of Scripture, I will first deal with it in your words.
Was it not you, my dear Erasmus, who asserted a little earlier that God is by nature just, by nature most merciful? If this is true, does it not follow that he is immutably just and merciful—that as his nature never changes, so neither does his justice or mercy? But what is said of his justice and mercy must also be said of his knowledge, wisdom, goodness, will, and other divine attributes. If, then, the assertion of these things concerning God is, as you state, religious, pious, and salutary, what has come over you that you now contradict yourself by asserting that it is irreverent, inquisitive, and vain to say that God foreknows necessarily? You declare that the will of God is to be understood as immutable, yet you forbid us to know that his foreknowledge is immutable. Do you, then, believe that he foreknows without willing or wills without knowing? If he foreknows as he wills, then his will is eternal and unchanging, because his nature is so, and if he wills as he foreknows, then his knowledge is eternal and unchanging, because his nature is so.
From this it follows irrefutably that everything we do, everything that happens, even if it seems to us to happen mutably and contingently, happens in fact nonetheless necessarily and immutably, if you have regard to the will of God. For the will of God is effectual and cannot be hindered, since it is the power of the divine nature itself; moreover it is wise, so that it cannot be deceived. Now, if his will is not hindered, there is nothing to prevent the work itself from being done, in the place, time, manner, and measure that he himself both foresees and wills. If the will of God were such that, when the work was completed, the work remained but the will ceased—like the will of men, which ceases to will when the house they want is built, just as it also comes to an end in death—then it could be truly said that things happen contingently and mutably. But here the opposite happens; the work comes to an end and the will remains, so remote is it from possibility that the work itself, during its production and completed existence, should exist or persist contingently. To happen contingently, however—in order that we may not misuse terms—means in Latin, not that the work itself is contingent, but that it is done by a contingent and mutable will, such as there is not in God. Moreover, a work can only be called contingent when from our point of view it is done contingently and, as it were, by chance and without our expecting it, because our will or hand seizes on it as something presented to us by chance, when we have thought or willed nothing about it previously.
I could wish indeed that another and a better word had been introduced into our discussion than this usual one, “necessity,” which is not rightly applied either to the divine or the human will. It has too harsh and incongruous a meaning for this purpose, for it suggests a kind of compulsion, and the very opposite of willingness, although the subject under discussion implies no such thing. For neither the divine nor the human will does what it does, whether good or evil, under any compulsion, but from sheer pleasure or desire, as with true freedom; and yet the will of God is immutable and infallible, and it governs our mutable will, as Boethius sings: “Remaining fixed, Thou makest all things move”; and our will, especially when it is evil, cannot of itself do good. The reader’s intelligence must therefore supply what the word “necessity” does not express, by understanding it to mean what you might call the immutability of the will of God and the impotence of our evil will, or what some have called the necessity of immutability, though this is not very good either grammatically or theologically.
The Sophists have labored for years over this point, but in the end they have been beaten and forced to admit that everything happens necessarily, though by the necessity of consequence, as they say, and not by the necessity of the consequent. They have thus eluded the full force of this question, or indeed it might rather be said they have deluded themselves. For how meaningless this is I shall have no difficulty in showing. What they call the necessity of consequence means broadly this: If God wills anything, it is necessary for that thing to come to pass, but it is not necessary that the thing which comes to pass should exist; for God alone exists necessarily, and it is possible for everything else not to exist if God so wills. So they say that an action of God is necessary if he wills it, but that the thing done is not itself necessary. But what do they achieve by this playing with words? This, of course, that the thing done is not necessary, in the sense that it has not a necessary existence. But this is no different from saying that the thing done is not God himself. Nevertheless, it remains a fact that everything that comes into being does so necessarily, if the action of God is necessary, or if there is a necessity of consequence, however true it is that, when it has been brought into being, it does not exist necessarily, that is to say, it is not God and has not a necessary existence. For if I myself am brought into existence necessarily, it is of little concern to me that my being or becoming is mutable; for my contingent and mutable self, though not the necessary being that God is, is nonetheless brought into existence.
Hence their amusing idea, that everything happens by necessity of consequence but not by necessity of the consequent, amounts to no more than this: all things are indeed brought about necessarily, but when they have thus been brought about, they are not God himself. But what need was there to tell us this? As if there were any fear of our asserting that created things are God, or that they have a divine and necessary nature! Hence the proposition stands, and remains invincible, that all things happen by necessity. Nor is there here any obscurity or ambiguity. It says in Isaiah: “My counsel shall stand and my will shall be done” Isa. 46:10. What schoolboy does not know the meaning of these terms “counsel,” “will,” “shall be done,” “shall stand”?
But why are these things abstruse to us Christians, so that it is irreverent and inquisitive and vain to discuss and come to know them, when heathen poets and even the common people speak of them quite freely? How often does Virgil, for one, remind us of Fate! “By changeless law stand all things fixed”; “Each man’s day stands fixed”; “If the Fates call thee”; “If thou canst break the harsh bonds of Fate.” That poet has no other aim than to show that in the destruction of Troy and the rise of the Roman Empire, Fate counts for more than all the endeavors of men, and therefore it imposes a necessity on both things and men. Moreover, he makes even their immortal gods subject to Fate, to which even Jupiter himself and Juno must necessarily yield. Hence the current conception of the three Parcae, immutable, implacable, irrevocable. The wise men of those days were well aware of what fact and experience prove, namely, that no man’s plans have ever been straightforwardly realized, but for everyone things have turned out differently from what he thought they would. Virgil’s Hector says, “Could Troy have stood by human arm, then it had stood by mine.” Hence the very common saying on everyone’s lips, “God’s will be done”; and “God willing, we will do it,” or “Such was the will of God.” “So it pleased those above”; “Such was your will,” says Virgil. From this we can see that the knowledge of God’s predestination and foreknowledge remained with the common people no less than the awareness of his existence itself. But those who wished to appear wise went so far astray in their reasonings that their hearts were darkened and they became fools, Rom. 1:21, and denied or explained away the things that the poets and common people, and even their own conscience, regarded as entirely familiar, certain, and true.
I go farther and say, not only how true these things are—as will be shown more fully below from the Scriptures—but also how religious, devout, and necessary a thing it is to know them. For if these things are not known, there can be neither faith nor any worship of God. For that would indeed be ignorance of God, and where there is such ignorance there cannot be salvation, as we know. For if you doubt or disdain to know that God foreknows all things, not contingently, but necessarily and immutably, how can you believe his promises and place a sure trust and reliance on them? For when he promises anything, you ought to be certain that he knows and is able and willing to perform what he promises; otherwise, you will regard him as neither truthful nor faithful, and that is impiety and a denial of the Most High God. But how will you be certain and sure unless you know that he knows and wills and will do what he promises, certainly, infallibly, immutably, and necessarily? And we ought not only to be certain that God wills and will act necessarily and immutably, but also to glory in this fact; as Paul says in Romans 3:4: “Let God be true though every man be false,” and again Rom. 9:6: “Not as though the word of God had failed,” and elsewhere: “But God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: ‘The Lord knows those who are his’ ” II Tim. 2:19. And in Titus 1:2 he says: “Which God, who never lies, promised ages ago,” and in Hebrews 11:6: “Whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who hope in him.”
Therefore, Christian faith is entirely extinguished, the promises of God and the whole gospel are completely destroyed, if we teach and believe that it is not for us to know the necessary foreknowledge of God and the necessity of the things that are to come to pass. For this is the one supreme consolation of Christians in all adversities, to know that God does not lie, but does all things immutably, and that his will can neither be resisted nor changed nor hindered.
See now, my dear Erasmus, what that most moderate and peace-loving theology of yours leads to! You warn us off, and forbid us to try to understand the foreknowledge of God and the necessity laid on things and men, advising us to leave such things alone, and to shun and condemn them. And by this illadvised labor of yours you teach us both to cultivate ignorance of God, which comes of its own accord, and indeed is inborn in us, and to despise faith, let go the promises of God, and treat all the consolations of the Spirit and certitudes of conscience as of no account. Such advice Epicurus himself would scarcely give! Then, not content with this, you call anyone who seeks knowledge of such things irreverent, inquisitive, and vain, but one who despises them, religious, devout, and sober. What else do you imply by these words than that Christians are inquisitive, vain, and irreverent, and that Christianity is a matter of no moment at all, but vain, foolish, and really quite impious? So it happens again that while you wish above all to preserve us from temerity, you are carried away, as foolish people often are, and do the very opposite, teaching nothing but the greatest temerities, impieties, and perditions. Do you not see that in this part your book is so impious, blasphemous, and sacrilegious that it is without an equal anywhere?
I am not, as I said above, speaking of your heart, nor do I think you so abandoned that at heart you desire either to teach these things or to see them taught and practiced. But I am trying to show you what frightful things a man is bound to babble if he undertakes to support a bad cause, and what it means to run counter to divine truth and divine Scripture when we put on an act to please others and play a part that is foreign to us against our conscience. It is no game or joke to give instruction in Holy Writ and godliness, for it is very easy to fall here in the way that James describes: “Whoever fails in one point has become guilty of all” James 2:10. For thus it comes about that when we think we mean to trifle only a little, and do not treat Holy Writ with sufficient reverence, we are soon involved in impieties and immersed in blasphemies, just as has happened to you here, Erasmus—may the Lord forgive you and have mercy on you.
That the Sophists have produced such swarms of questions on these subjects, and have mixed up a lot of other useless things with them, many of which you specify, we know and admit as you do, and we have attacked them more sharply and more fully than you have. But you are imprudent and rash when you mix up, confuse, and assimilate the purity of sacred realities with the profane and stupid questions of ungodly men. “They have defiled the gold and changed its good color,” as Jeremiah says Lam. 4:1, but the gold must not forthwith be treated like rubbish and thrown away, as you are doing. The gold must be rescued from these men, and the pure Scripture separated from their dregs and filth, as I have always sought to do, in order that the divine writings may be kept in one place, and their trifles in another. And it ought not to disturb us that nothing has come of these questions, “except that with the loss of harmony we love one another the less, while seeking to be wiser than we need.” For us the question is not what the Sophists have gained by their questions, but how we may become good Christians; and you ought not to blame it on Christian doctrine that the ungodly behave badly, since that has nothing to do with the case, and you could have spoken of it in another place and spared your paper here.
Should Divine Truth Be Kept from Common Ears?
In the third section you proceed to turn us into modest and peaceloving Epicureans, with a different sort of advice, though no sounder than the two already mentioned. That is to say, you tell us that some things are of such a kind that even if they were true and might be known, it would not be proper to prostitute them before common ears.
Here again you confuse and mix everything up in your usual way, putting the sacred on a level with the profane and making no distinction between them at all, so that once again you have fallen into contempt and abuse of Scripture and of God. I said above that things which are either contained in or proved by Holy Writ are not only plain, but also salutary, and can therefore safely be published, learned, and known, as indeed they ought to be. Hence your saying that they ought not to be prostituted before common ears is false if you are speaking of the things that are in Scripture; and if you are speaking of other things, what you say does not interest us and is out of place, so that you are wasting your time and paper on it. Besides, you know that there is no subject on which I agree with the Sophists, so that you might well have spared me and not cast their misdoings in my teeth. For it was against me that you were to speak in that book of yours. I know where the Sophists go wrong without needing you to tell me, and they have had plenty of criticism from me. I should like this said once for all, and repeated every time you mix me up with the Sophists and make my case look as crazy as theirs, for you are being quite unfair, as you very well know.
Now, let us see the reasons for your advice. Even if it were true that “God, according to his own nature, is no less present in the hole of a beetle” or even in a sewer than in heaven, though you are too reverent to say this yourself, and blame the Sophists for blathering so, yet you think it would be unreasonable to discuss such a subject before the common herd.
First, let them blather who will; we are not here discussing what men do, but what is right and lawful, not how we live, but how we ought to live. Which of us always lives and acts rightly? But law and precept are not condemned on that account, but they rather condemn us. Yet you go looking for irrelevancies like these, and rake a pile of them together from all sides, because this one point about the foreknowledge of God upsets you; and since you have no real argument with which to overcome it, you spend the time trying to tire out your reader with a lot of empty talk. But we will let that pass, and get back to the subject. What, then, is the point of your contention that certain matters ought not to be discussed publicly? Do you count the subject of free choice among them? In that case, all I said above about the necessity of understanding free choice will round on you again. Moreover, why did you not follow your own advice and leave your Diatribe unwritten? If it is right for you to discuss free choice, why do you denounce such discussion? If it is wrong, why do you do it? On the other hand, if you do not count free choice among the prohibited subjects, you are again evading the real issue, dealing like a wordy rhetorician with topics that are irrelevant and out of place.
Even so, you are wrong in the use you make of this example, and in condemning as unprofitable the public discussion of the proposition that God is in the hole or the sewer. Your thoughts about God are all too human. There are, I admit, some shallow preachers who, from no motives of religion or piety, but perhaps from a desire for popularity or a thirst for some novelty or a distaste for silence, prate and trifle in the shallowest way. But these please neither God nor men, even if they assert that God is in the heaven of heavens. But where there are serious and godly preachers who teach in modest, pure, and sound words, they speak on such a subject in public without risk, and indeed with great profit. Ought we not all to teach that the Son of God was in the womb of the Virgin and came forth from her belly? But how does a human belly differ from any other unclean place? Anyone could describe it in foul and shameless terms, but we rightly condemn those who do, seeing that there are plenty of pure words with which to speak of that necessary theme even with decency and grace. Again, the body of Christ himself was human as ours is, and what is fouler than that? Are we therefore not to say that God dwelt in it bodily, as Paul has said, Col.2:9? What is fouler than death? What more horrifying than hell? Yet the prophet glories that God is present with him in death and hell, Ps. 139:8.
Therefore, a godly mind is not shocked to hear that God is present in death or hell, both of which are more horrible and foul than either a hole or a sewer. Indeed, since Scripture testifies that God is everywhere and fills all things, Jer. 23:24, a godly mind not only says that He is in those places, but must needs learn and know that he is there. Or are we to suppose that if I am captured by a tyrant and thrown into a prison or a sewer—as has happened to many saints—I am not to be allowed to call upon God there or to believe that he is present with me, but must wait until I come into some finely furnished church?
If you teach us to talk such nonsense about God, and are so set against the locating of his essence, you will end by not even allowing him to remain for us in heaven; for the heaven of heavens cannot contain him, nor is it worthy of him, I Kings 8:27. But as I have said, it is your habit to stab at us in this hateful way in order to disparage our case and make it odious, because you see that for you it is insuperable and invincible.
As for your second example, I admit that the idea that there are three Gods is a scandal if it is taught; but it is neither true, nor does Scripture teach it. The Sophists speak in this way with their newfound dialectic, but what has that to do with us?
In the remaining example, regarding confession and satisfaction, it is wonderful to see with what felicitous prudence you put your case. Everywhere you walk so delicately, as is your habit, in order to avoid giving the impression either that you do not wholeheartedly condemn our views or that you are not opposed to the tyranny of the popes, for that would be by no means safe for you. So you bid adieu meanwhile to God and to conscience—for how does it concern Erasmus what God wills in these matters and what is good for the conscience?—and launch an attack on mere externals, charging the common people with abusing the preaching of free confession and satisfaction and turning it into carnal liberty to suit their own evil inclination, whereas by the necessity of confessing, you say, they were at all events restrained.
What outstandingly brilliant reasoning! Is that the way to teach theology? To bind souls by laws and, as Ezekiel says, Ezek. 13:18, to slay them, when they are not bound by God? By this token you set up for us again the whole tyranny of papal laws, as being useful and salutary because by them too the wickedness of the common people is restrained. But instead of attacking this passage in the way it deserves, let me put the point briefly. A good theologian teaches as follows: the common people are to be restrained by the external power of the sword when they behave wickedly, as Paul teaches in Romans 13:4; but their consciences are not to be ensnared with false laws, so that they are burdened with sins where God has not willed that there should be sins. For consciences are bound only by a commandment of God, so that the interfering tyranny of the popes, which falsely terrifies and kills souls inwardly and vainly wearies the body outwardly, has simply no place in our midst. For although it makes confession and other outward burdens compulsory, the mind is not kept in order by these means, but is rather provoked into hatred of God and men; and it is in vain that the body is tortured to death with outward observances, for this makes mere hypocrites, so that legal tyrants of this kind are nothing else but ravening wolves, thieves, and robbers of souls, Matt. 7:15; John 10:8. Yet it is these that you, good spiritual counselor that you are, commend to us again. You set before us the cruellest of soul destroyers, and want us to let them fill the world with hypocrites who blaspheme and dishonor God in their hearts, as long as outwardly they are kept in some degree of order, as if there were not another means of keeping them in order, which makes no hypocrites and is applied without any ruination of consciences, as I have said.
Here you produce analogies, of which you seek to give the impression that you have an abundant store and make very apt use. You say, for instance, that there are diseases which it is a lesser evil to endure than to cure, such as leprosy, etc. You also bring in the example of Paul, who distinguished between things lawful and things expedient, I Cor. 6:12; 10:23. It is lawful, you say, to speak the truth, but it is not expedient to do so to everybody at all times and in all circumstances. What a fluent orator you are! Yet you understand nothing of what you are saying. In a word, you treat this subject as if it were simply an affair between you and me about the recovery of a sum of money, or some other quite trivial matter, the loss of which, as being of much less value than your precious external peace, ought not to trouble anyone enough to prevent him from giving way, and doing or suffering as the occasion requires, so as to make it unnecessary for the world to be thrown into such an uproar. You thus plainly show that outward peace and quietness are to you far more important than faith, conscience, salvation, the Word of God, the glory of Christ, and God himself.
Let me tell you, therefore—and I beg you to let this sink deep into your mind—that what I am after in this dispute is to me something serious, necessary, and indeed eternal, something of such a kind and such importance that it ought to be asserted and defended to the death, even if the whole world had not only to be thrown into strife and confusion, but actually to return to total chaos and be reduced to nothingness. If you do not understand this or are not concerned about it, then mind your own affairs and let those understand and be concerned about it on whom God has laid the charge.
For even I, by the grace of God, am not such a fool or so mad as to have been willing to maintain and defend this cause for so long, with so much zeal and constancy (which you call obstinacy), amid so many dangers to life, so much hatred, so many treacheries, in short, amid the fury of men and demons, simply for the sake of money, which I neither possess nor desire, or popularity, which I could not obtain if I wished, in a world so incensed against me, or physical safety, of which I cannot for a moment be certain. Do you think that you alone have a heart that is moved by these tumults? Even we are not made of stone, or born of the Marpesian rocks; but when nothing else can be done, we prefer to be battered by temporal tumult, rejoicing in the grace of God, for the sake of the Word of God, which must be asserted with an invincible and incorruptible mind, rather than to be shattered by eternal tumult under the wrath of God, with intolerable torment. May Christ grant, as I hope and pray, that your mind may not come to that, although your words certainly sound as if you thought, like Epicurus, that the Word of God and a future life were fables; for you seek with your magisterial advice to persuade us that, as a favor to pontiffs and princes or for the sake of peace, we ought if occasion arises, to give way and set aside the most sure Word of God. But if we do that, we set aside God, faith, salvation, and everything Christian. How much better is the admonition of Christ, that we should rather spurn the whole world, Matt. 16:26!
You say things like these, however, because you do not read or do not observe that it is the most unvarying fate of the Word of God to have the world in a state of tumult because of it. This is plainly asserted by Christ, when he says: “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” Matt. 10:34, and in Luke: “I came to cast fire upon the earth” 12:49. And Paul in I and II Corinthians 6:5 says: “In tumults,” etc. And the prophet in the Second Psalm abundantly testifies the same, asserting that the nations are in tumult, the peoples murmur, kings rise up, princes conspire, against the Lord and against his Christ; as if he would say, numbers, rank, wealth, power, wisdom, righteousness, and whatever is exalted in the world, opposes itself to the Word of God. Look into The Acts of the Apostles and see what happens in the world on account of Paul’s word alone, to say nothing of the other apostles. See how he alone sets both Gentiles and Jews by the ears, or as his enemies themselves say in the same place, he turns the world upside down, Acts 17:6; 24:5. Under Elijah the Kingdom of Israel was troubled, as Ahab complains, I Kings 18:17. And what tumult there was under the other prophets! They are all killed or stoned, while Israel is taken captive to Assyria and Judah to Babylon! Was this peace? The world and its god cannot and will not endure the Word of the true God, and the true God neither will nor can keep silence; so when these two Gods are at war with one another, what can there be but tumult in the whole world?
To wish to stop these tumults, therefore, is nothing else but to wish to suppress and prohibit the Word of God. For the Word of God comes, whenever it comes, to change and renew the world. Even the heathen writers testify that changes of things cannot take place without commotion and tumult, nor indeed without bloodshed. But it is the mark of a Christian to expect and endure these things with presence of mind, as Christ says: “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet” Matt. 24:6. For myself, if I did not see these tumults I should say that the Word of God was not in the world; but now, when I do see them, I heartily rejoice and have no fear, because I am quite certain that the kingdom of the pope, with all his followers, is going to collapse; for it is against this in particular that the Word of God, now at large in the world, is directed.
I am aware, of course, that you, my dear Erasmus, complain in many books about these tumults and the loss of peace and concord, and with the best of intentions, as I verily believe, you try hard to find a remedy for them. But this gouty foot laughs at your doctoring hands; for here in truth you are, as you say, rowing against the stream, or rather, you are putting out a fire with straw. Stop your complaining, stop your doctoring; this tumult has arisen and is directed from above, and it will not cease till it makes all the adversaries of the Word like the mud on the streets. But it is sad to have to remind a theologian like you of these things, as if you were a pupil instead of one who ought to be teaching others.
It is here, therefore, that your aphorism, which is neat enough, though your use of it is inapposite, really belongs—I mean your aphorism about diseases that are less evil to endure than to cure. You should say that the diseases which are less evil to endure are these tumults, commotions, disturbances, seditions, sects, discords, wars, and anything else of this sort, by which the whole world is shaken and shattered on account of the Word of God. These things, I say, because they are temporal, are less evil to endure than the inveterate wickedness through which souls will inevitably be lost if they are not changed by the Word of God; and if that Word were taken away, then eternal good, God, Christ, the Spirit, would go with it. But surely it is preferable to lose the world rather than God the creator of the world, who is able to create innumerable worlds again, and who is better than infinite worlds! For what comparison is there between things temporal and things eternal? This leprosy of temporal evils ought therefore to be endured rather than that all souls should be slaughtered and eternally damned while the world is kept in peace and preserved from these tumults by their blood and perdition, seeing that the whole world cannot pay the price of redemption for a single soul.
You have some elegant and unusual analogies and aphorisms, but when you are dealing with sacred matters your application of them is puerile and indeed perverse, for you creep on the ground and never have a thought that rises above human comprehension. For the operations of God are not childish or bourgeois or human, but divine and exceeding human grasp. But you do not seem to see that these tumults and divisions are marching through the world by the counsel and operation of God, and you are afraid lest the heavens should fall. But I, by the grace of God, see this clearly, because I see other greater troubles in time to come, by comparison with which these present seem no more than the whisper of a breeze or the murmur of a gentle stream.
But the dogma concerning the freedom of confession and satisfaction you either deny or do not know to be the Word of God. That is another question. We, however, know and are sure that it is God’s Word by which Christian freedom is asserted, so that we may not allow ourselves to be trapped and brought into bondage by human traditions and laws. This we have abundantly taught elsewhere; and if you wish to go into the question, we are prepared to state our case or debate it with you as well. There are not a few books of ours available on this subject.
But at the same time, you will say, the laws of the pontiffs ought in charity to be endured and observed equally with divine laws, if by any chance it is possible in this way to maintain both eternal salvation through the Word of God and also the peace of the world. I have said above that that is not possible. The prince of this world does not allow the pope and his own pontiffs to have their laws observed freely, but his purpose is to capture and bind consciences. This the true God cannot tolerate, and so the Word of God and the traditions of men are irreconcilably opposed to one another, precisely as God himself and Satan are mutually opposed, each destroying the works and subverting the dogmas of the other like two kings laying waste each other’s kingdoms. “He who is not with me,” says Christ, “is against me” Matt. 12:30.
As to your fear that many who are inclined to wickedness will abuse this freedom, this should be reckoned as one of the said tumults, part of that temporal leprosy which has to be endured and that evil which has to be borne. Such people should not be considered so important that in order to prevent their abusing it the Word of God must be taken away. If all cannot be saved, yet some are saved, and it is for their sake that the Word of God comes. These love the more fervently and are the more inviolably in concord. For what evil did ungodly men not do even before, when there was no Word? Or rather, what good did they do? Was not the world always inundated with war, fraud, violence, discord, and every kind of crime? Does not Micah liken the best of the men of his day to a thorn hedge, Micah 7:4? And what do you think he would call the rest? But now the coming of the gospel begins to be blamed for the fact that the world is wicked, whereas the truth is that the good light of the gospel reveals how bad the world was when it lived in its own darkness without the gospel. In a similar way the uneducated find fault with education because their ignorance is shown up where education flourishes. That is the gratitude we show for the Word of life and salvation.
What apprehension must we not suppose there was among the Jews when the gospel set everyone free from the law of Moses? What did not so great a freedom seem likely to permit to evil men? Yet the gospel was not on that account taken away, but the ungodly were allowed to go their own way, while the godly were charged not to use their freedom as an opportunity to indulge the flesh, Gal. 5:13.
Nor is that part of your advice or remedy of any value, where you say it is lawful to speak the truth, but not expedient to do so to everybody at every time in every way; and it is quite inappropriate for you to quote Paul’s saying: “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are expedient” I Cor. 6:12. Paul is not there speaking of doctrine or the teaching of the truth, in the way that you misinterpret him and make him mean what you want. Paul wishes the truth to be spoken everywhere at every time and in every way. He can therefore rejoice even when Christ is preached in pretense and from envy, and he declares plainly and in so many words that he rejoices in whatever way Christ is preached, Phil. 1:15. Paul is speaking factually and about the use made of the doctrine, that is, about those who boasted of Christian freedom but were seeking their own ends and took no account of the hurt and offense given to the weak. Truth and doctrine must be preached always, openly, and constantly, and never accommodated or concealed; for there is no scandal in it, for it is the scepter of righteousness, Ps. 45:6– 7.
Who has empowered you or given you the right to bind Christian doctrine to places, persons, times, or causes when Christ wills it to be proclaimed and to reign throughout the world in entire freedom? “The word of God is not bound,” says Paul, II Tim. 2:9; and will Erasmus bind the Word? God has not given us a Word that shows partiality in respect of persons, places, or times; for Christ says: “Go into all the world” Mark 16:15. He does not say, “Go to one place and not another,” as Erasmus does. And he says, “Preach the gospel to every creature” (ibid.), not “to some and not to others.” In short, you prescribe for us respect of persons, respect of places and customs, and respect of times, in the service of the Word of God, whereas it is one great part of the glory of the Word that, as Paul says there is no prosōpolēmpsia and God is no respecter of persons. You see again how rashly you run counter to the Word of God, as if you much prefer your own ideas and counsels.
If we now asked you to distinguish for us the times, persons, and ways in which the truth ought to be spoken, when would you be ready to do it? The world would reach the limit of time and its own end before you had established any certain rule. Meanwhile, what would become of the ministry of teaching and the souls that should be taught? But how should you be able to give us a rule when you know no means of assessing either persons or times or methods? And even if you most decidedly did, yet you do not know men’s hearts. Or does “method,” “time,” and “person” mean for you that we should teach the truth in such a way as not to offend the pope or annoy the emperor or upset the pontiffs and princes, and not to cause any commotions and tumults in the world, lest many be made to stumble and become worse? What sort of advice this is, you have seen above; but you would rather spin fine though useless phrases than say, nothing at all.
How much better it would be for us miserable men to let God, who knows all men’s hearts, have the glory of prescribing the manner, persons, and times for speaking the truth! For he knows what should be spoken to each, and when and how. As it is, however, he has enjoined that his gospel, which is necessary for all, should know no limit of place or time, but should be preached to all in every time and place. And I have proved above that the things set forth in the Scriptures are of a kind intended for all, and must necessarily be broadcast and are thoroughly salutary—as even you yourself have stated, with better sense than you show now, in your Paraclesis. Those who do not want souls redeemed, like the pope and his crowd—let it be left to them to bind the Word of God and keep men from life and the Kingdom of Heaven, so that they neither enter themselves nor permit others to enter, Matt. 23:13, to whose madness you perniciously pander, Erasmus, by this advice of yours.
The same sort of prudence underlies your next bit of advice, that if some wrong definition had been made in the Councils, it ought not to be proclaimed, lest a handle should be given to scorn the authority of the Fathers. This, of course, was just what the pope wanted you to say; he would rather hear it than the gospel, and he is the worst of ingrates if he does not reward you with a cardinal’s hat and the income that goes with it. But in the meantime, Erasmus, what will souls do that are bound and slain by that unjust statute? Is that nothing to you?
You, of course, always hold, or profess to hold, that human statutes can be observed without peril along with the Word of God. If they could, I should not hesitate to join you in the view you express here. So if you do not know it, I tell you again: Human statutes cannot be observed together with the Word of God, because they bind consciences, while the Word sets them free. The two are as mutually incompatible as water and fire, unless the human statutes are kept freely, that is, as not being binding— a thing that the pope will not and cannot allow, unless he wants his kingdom ruined and brought to an end, since it is only maintained by the ensnaring and binding of consciences which the gospel asserts to be free. Therefore the authority of the Fathers is neither here nor there, and statutes wrongly enacted, as are all which are not in accordance with the Word of God ought to be torn up and thrown away, for Christ ranks higher than the authority of the Fathers. In short, if this view of yours has reference to the Word of God, it is impious; if it refers to other things, your wordy argument in support of it is nothing to us, for we are arguing about the Word of God.
Should the Truth of God’s Necessitating Will Be Suppressed?
In the last part of your Preface where you seriously try to dissuade me from my kind of doctrine, you think you have as good as won your point. What, you say, could be more useless than to publish this paradox to the world, that whatever is done by us is not done by free choice, but by sheer necessity? And Augustine’s saying, that God works in us good and evil, and rewards his own good works in us and punishes his evil works in us—what is the use of that? You are profuse in giving, or rather demanding, a reason here. What a window to impiety, you say, would the public avowal of this opinion open to mortal men! What evildoer would correct his life? Who would believe he was loved by God? Who would war against his own flesh? I am surprised that in your great vehemence and contentiousness you did not remember the point at issue and say: Where would free choice then remain?
My dear Erasmus, let me too say in turn: If you think these paradoxes are inventions of men, what are you contending about? Why are you so roused? Against whom are you speaking? Is there anyone in the world today who has more vigorously attacked the dogmas of men than Luther? Therefore, your admonition has nothing to do with me. But if you think these paradoxes are words of God, how can you keep your countenance, where is your shame, where is—I will not say that well-known moderation of Erasmus, but the fear and reverence that are due to the true God, when you say that nothing more useless could be proclaimed than the Word of God? Naturally, your Creator must learn from you his creature what it is useful or useless to preach! That foolish, that thoughtless God did not previously know what ought to be taught until you his master prescribed for him how to be wise and how to give commandments! As though he himself would not have known, if you had not taught him, that the consequences you mention would follow from this paradox! If, therefore, God has willed that such things should be openly spoken of and published abroad without regard to the consequences, who are you to forbid it?
The apostle Paul, in his epistle to the Romans, discusses these same things, not in a corner, but publicly and before all the world, in the freest manner and in even harsher terms, when he says: “Whom he will he hardeneth,” and, “God, willing to show his wrath,” etc. Rom. 9:18, 22. What could be harsher, to the unregenerate nature at least, than Christ’s saying: “Many are called, but few chosen” Matt. 22:14, or: “I know whom I have chosen” John 13:18? We have it, of course, on your authority that nothing more profitless could be said than things like these, because ungodly men are led by them to fall into desperation, hatred, and blasphemy.
Here, I see, you are of the opinion that the truth and usefulness of Scripture is to be measured and judged by the reactions of men, and the most ungodly men at that, so that only what has proved pleasing or seemed tolerable to them should be deemed true, divine, and salutary, while the opposite should forthwith be deemed useless, false, and pernicious. What are you aiming at with this advice, unless that the words of God should depend on, and stand or fall with, the choice and authority of men? Whereas Scripture says on the contrary that all things stand or fall by the choice and authority of God, and all the earth should keep silence before the Lord, Hab. 2:20. To talk as you do, one must imagine the Living God to be nothing but a kind of shallow and ignorant ranter declaiming from some platform, whose words you can if you wish interpret in any direction you like, and accept or reject them accordingly as ungodly men are seen to be moved or affected by them.
Here, my dear Erasmus, you plainly reveal how sincerely you meant your earlier advice that we should reverence the majesty of the divine judgments. There, when we were dealing with the dogmas of Scripture, which there was no need to reverence as things abstruse and hidden, since they are nothing of the kind, you warned us so very solemnly against rushing inquisitively into the Corycian cavern, that we were almost frightened off the reading of Scripture altogether, strongly though Christ and the apostles urge us to read it, as you yourself do elsewhere. But here, where we are concerned not with the dogmas of Scripture and the Corycian cavern only, but in very truth with the awful secrets of the Divine Majesty; namely, why he works in the way we have said. Here you smash through bolts and bars and rush in all but blaspheming, as indignant as possible with God because you are not allowed to see the meaning and purpose of such a judgment of his. Why do you not put up a screen of ambiguities and obscurities here also? Why do you not restrain yourself and deter others from prying into things that God has willed to be hidden from us, and has not set forth in the Scriptures? It was here you should have put your finger to your lips in reverence for what lay hidden, and adoring the secret counsels of the Majesty you should have cried with Paul: “O man, who art thou that contendest with God?” Rom. 9:20.
Who, you say, will take pains to correct his life? I answer: No man will and no man can, for God cares nothing for your correctors without the Spirit, since they are hypocrites. But the elect and the godly will be corrected by the Holy Spirit, while the rest perish uncorrected. Augustine does not say that no man’s or all men’s good works are crowned, but that some men’s are. So there will be some who correct their life. Who will believe, you say, that he is loved by God? I answer: No man will or can believe this; but the elect will believe while the rest perish in unbelief, indignant and blaspheming as you are here. So some will believe.
As to your saying that a window is opened for impiety by these dogmas, let it be so; such people belong to the above-mentioned leprosy of evil that must be endured. Nevertheless, by these same dogmas there is opened at the same time a door to righteousness, an entrance to heaven and a way to God for the godly and the elect. But if, as you advise, we left these dogmas alone and concealed this Word of God from men, so that they were deluded by a false assurance of salvation and no one learned to fear God and be humbled, so as to come through fear at length to grace and love, then we might very well have closed your window, but in its place we should be opening for ourselves and all men floodgates, or rather great chasms and gulfs, not only to impiety, but to the depths of hell. In this way we should neither enter heaven ourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in Matt. 23:13.
What then, you may ask, is the utility or necessity of publishing such things when so many evils appear to proceed from them? I answer: It would be enough to say that God has willed them to be published, and we must not ask the reason for the divine will, but simply adore it, giving God glory that, since he alone is just and wise, he does no wrong to anyone and can do nothing foolishly or rashly, though it may seem far otherwise to us. With this answer the godly are content. Still, out of our abundance we will do a work of supererogation and mention two considerations which demand that such things should be preached. The first is the humbling of our pride, and the knowledge of the grace of God; and the second is the nature of Christian faith itself.
First, God has assuredly promised his grace to the humble, I Peter 5:5, that is, to those who lament and despair of themselves. But no man can be thoroughly humbled until he knows that his salvation is utterly beyond his own powers, devices, endeavors, will, and works, and depends entirely on the choice, will, and work of another, namely, of God alone. For as long as he is persuaded that he himself can do even the least thing toward his salvation, he retains some self-confidence and does not altogether despair of himself, and therefore he is not humbled before God, but presumes that there is—or at least hopes or desires that there may be—some place, time, and work for him, by which he may at length attain to salvation. But when a man has no doubt that everything depends on the will of God, then he completely despairs of himself and chooses nothing for himself, but waits for God to work; then he has come close to grace, and can be saved.
It is thus for the sake of the elect that these things are published, in order that being humbled and brought back to nothingness by this means they may be saved. The rest resist this humiliation, indeed they condemn this teaching of self-despair, wishing for something, however little, to be left for them to do themselves; so they remain secretly proud and enemies of the grace of God. This, I say, is one reason, namely, that the godly, being humbled, may recognize, call upon, and receive the grace of God.
The second reason is that faith has to do with things not seen, Heb. 11:1. Hence in order that there may be room for faith, it is necessary that everything which is believed should be hidden. It cannot, however, be more deeply hidden than under an object, perception, or experience which is contrary to it.
Thus when God makes alive he does it by killing, when he justifies he does it by making men guilty, when he exalts to heaven he does it by bringing down to hell, as Scripture says: “The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up” I Sam. 2:6. This is not the place to speak at length on this subject, but those who have read my books have had it quite plainly set forth for them. Thus God hides his eternal goodness and mercy under eternal wrath, his righteousness under iniquity. This is the highest degree of faith, to believe him merciful when he saves so few and damns so many, and to believe him righteous when by his own will he makes us necessarily damnable, so that he seems, according to Erasmus, to delight in the torments of the wretched and to be worthy of hatred rather than of love. If, then, I could by any means comprehend how this God can be merciful and just who displays so much wrath and iniquity, there would be no need of faith. As it is, since that cannot be comprehended, there is room for the exercise of faith when such things are preached and published, just as when God kills, the faith of life is exercised in death. That is now enough by way of preface.
My way of dealing with people who argue about these paradoxes is better than yours. You advise silence and refusal to be drawn, with the idea of humoring their impiety; but you really achieve nothing by this. For if you either believe or suspect them to be true, since they are paradoxes of no small moment, such is the insatiable desire of mortals to probe into secret matters, especially when we most want them kept secret, that as a result of your publishing this warning everybody will now want to know all the more whether these paradoxes are true. They will have been aroused by your contention to such a degree that no one on our side will ever have provided such an opportunity for publicizing these paradoxes as you have done by this solemn and vehement warning. You would have been much wiser to say nothing at all about the need to beware of them if you wanted to see your desire fulfilled. The game is up when you do not directly deny that they are true; they cannot be kept dark, but the suspicion of their truth will prompt everybody to investigate them. Either, then, you must deny that they are true or set the example of silence if you want others to keep silence too.
Divine Necessity and the Human Will
As for the second paradox, that whatever is done by us is done not by free choice but of sheer necessity, let us look briefly at this and not permit it to be labeled most pernicious. What I say here is this: When it has been proved that salvation is beyond our own powers and devices, and depends on the work of God alone, as I hope to prove conclusively below in the main body of this disputation, does it not follow that when God is not present and at work in us everything we do is evil and we necessarily do what is of no avail for salvation? For if it is not we, but only God, who works salvation in us, then before he works we can do nothing of saving significance, whether we wish to or not.
Now, by “necessarily” I do not mean “compulsorily,” but by the necessity of immutability, as they say, and not of compulsion. That is to say, when a man is without the Spirit of God he does not do evil against his will, as if he were taken by the scruff of the neck and forced to it, like a thief or robber carried off against his will to punishment, but he does it of his own accord and with a ready will. And this readiness or will to act he cannot by his own powers omit, restrain, or change, but he keeps on willing and being ready; and even if he is compelled by external force to do something different, yet the will within him remains averse and he is resentful at whatever compels or resists it. He would not be resentful, however, if it were changed and he willingly submitted to the compulsion. This is what we call the necessity of immutability: It means that the will cannot change itself and turn in a different direction, but is rather the more provoked into willing by being resisted, as its resentment shows. This would not happen if it were free or had free choice. Ask experience how impossible it is to persuade people who have set their heart on anything. If they yield, they yield to force or to the greater attraction of something else; they never yield freely. On the other hand, if they are not set on anything, they simply let things take their course.
By contrast, if God works in us, the will is changed, and being gently breathed upon by the Spirit of God, it again wills and acts from pure willingness and inclination and of its own accord, not from compulsion, so that it cannot be turned another way by any opposition, nor be overcome or compelled even by the gates of hell, but it goes on willing and delighting in and loving the good, just as before it willed and delighted in and loved evil. This again is proved by experience, which shows how invincible and steadfast holy men are, who when force is used to compel them to other things are thereby all the more spurred on to will the good, just as fire is fanned into flames rather than extinguished by the wind. So not even here is there any free choice, or freedom to turn oneself in another direction or will something different, so long as the Spirit and grace of God remain in a man.
In short, if we are under the god of this world, away from the work and Spirit of the true God, we are held captive to his will, as Paul says to Timothy, II Tim. 2:26, so that we cannot will anything but what he wills. For he is that strong man armed, who guards his own palace in such a way that those whom he possesses are in peace, Luke 11:21, so as to prevent them from stirring up any thought or feeling against him; otherwise, the kingdom of Satan being divided against itself would not stand, Luke 11:18, whereas Christ affirms that it does stand. And this we do readily and willingly, according to the nature of the will, which would not be a will if it were compelled; for compulsion is rather, so to say, “unwill.” But if a Stronger One comes who overcomes him and takes us as His spoil, then through his Spirit we are again slaves and captives—though this is royal freedom—so that we readily will and do what he wills. 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. 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.
What if I can prove from the words you yourself use in asserting freedom of choice that there is no free choice? What if I convict you of unwittingly denying what you seek so carefully to affirm? Frankly, unless I do so, I swear to regard everything I write against you in the entire book as revoked, and everything your Diatribe either asserts or queries against me as confirmed.
You make the power of free choice very slight and of a kind that is entirely ineffective apart from the grace of God. Do you not agree? Now I ask you, if the grace of God is absent or separated from it, what can that very slight power do of itself? It is ineffective, you say, and does nothing good. Then it cannot do what God or his grace wills, at any rate if we suppose the grace of God to be separated from it. But what the grace of God does not do is not good. Hence it follows that free choice without the grace of God is not free at all, but immutably the captive and slave of evil, since it cannot of itself turn to the good. If this is granted, I give you leave to make the power of free choice, instead of something very slight, something angelic, indeed if possible something quite divine; yet if you add this mournful rider, that apart from the grace of God it is ineffective, you at once rob it of all its power. What is ineffective power but simply no power at all?
Therefore, to say that free choice exists and has indeed some power, but that it is an ineffective power, is what the Sophists call oppositum in adjecto “a contradiction in terms”. It is as if you said that there is a free choice which is not free, which is as sensible as calling fire cold and earth hot. For fire may have the power of heat, even infernal heat, but if it does not burn or scorch, but is cold and freezes, let no one tell me it is a fire at all, much less a hot one, unless you mean a painted or imaginary fire. But if the power of free choice were said to mean that by which a man is capable of being taken hold of by the Spirit and imbued with the grace of God, as a being created for eternal life or death, no objection could be taken. For this power or aptitude, or as the Sophists say, this disposing quality or passive aptitude, we also admit; and who does not know that it is not found in trees or animals? For heaven, as the saying is, was not made for geese.
It is settled, then, even on your own testimony, that we do everything by necessity, and nothing by free choice, since the power of free choice is nothing and neither does nor can do good in the absence of grace—unless you wish to give “efficacy” a new meaning and understand it as “perfection,” as if free choice might very well make a start and will something, though it could not carry it through. But that I do not believe, and will say more about it later. It follows now that free choice is plainly a divine term, and can be properly applied to none but the Divine Majesty alone; for he alone can do and does, as the psalmist says in 115:3, whatever he pleases in heaven and on earth. If this is attributed to men, it is no more rightly attributed than if divinity itself also were attributed to them, which would be the greatest possible sacrilege. Theologians therefore ought to have avoided this term when they wished to speak of human ability, leaving it to be applied to God alone. They should, moreover, have removed it from the lips and language of men, treating it as a kind of sacred and venerable name for their God. And if they attributed any power at all to men, they should teach that it must be called by another name than free choice, especially as we know and clearly perceive that the common people are miserably deceived and led astray by that term, since they hear and understand it in a very different sense from that which the theologians mean and discuss.
For the expression “free choice” is too imposing, too wide and full, and the people think it signifies— as the force and nature of the term requires—a power that can turn itself freely in either direction, without being under anyone’s influence or control. If they knew that it was not so, but that hardly the tiniest spark of power was meant by this term, and a spark completely ineffectual by itself as a captive and slave of the devil, it would be surprising if they did not stone us as mockers and deceivers who say one thing and mean something quite different, or rather who have not yet decided or agreed on what we do mean. For he who speaks sophistically is hateful, as the Wise Man says, Prov. 6:17, particularly if he does this in matters of piety, where eternal salvation is at stake.
Since, then, we have lost the meaning and content of such a vainglorious term, or rather have never possessed it, as the Pelagians wanted us to, who like you were led astray by the term, why do we so stubbornly hold on to an empty term, deceptive and dangerous as it is for the rank and file of believers? It is as sensible as when kings and princes hold on to or claim for themselves and boast about empty titles of kingdoms and countries, when in fact they are practically paupers and anything but the possessors of those kingdoms and countries. That, however, can be tolerated, since they deceive or mislead no one by it, but simply feed themselves on vanity, quite fruitlessly. But in the present case there is a danger to salvation and a thoroughly injurious illusion.
Who would not think it ridiculous, or rather very objectionable, if some untimely innovator in the use of words attempted to introduce, against all common usage, such a manner of speaking as to call a beggar rich, not because he possessed any riches, but because some king might perhaps give him his, especially if this were done in seeming seriousness and not in a figure of speech, such as antiphrasis or irony. In this way, one who was mortally ill could be said to be perfectly well because some other might give him his own health, and a thoroughly illiterate fellow could be called very learned because someone else might perhaps give him learning. That is just how it sounds here: Man has free choice—if, of course, God would hand over his own to him! By this misuse of language, anyone might boast of anything, as for instance, that man is lord of heaven and earth—if God would grant it to him. But that is not the way for theologians to talk, but for stage players and public informers. Our words ought to be precise, pure, and sober, and as Paul says, sound and beyond censure, Titus 2:8.
But if we are unwilling to let this term go altogether—though that would be the safest and most God-fearing thing to do—let us at least teach men to use it honestly, so that free choice is allowed to man only with respect to what is beneath him and not what is above him. That is to say, a man should know that with regard to his faculties and possessions he has the right to use, to do, or to leave undone, according to his own free choice, though even this is controlled by the free choice of God alone, who acts in whatever way he pleases. On the other hand in relation to God, or in matters pertaining to salvation or damnation, a man has no free choice, but is a captive, subject and slave either of the will of God or the will of Satan.
Erasmus Makes Unnecessary Difficulties
Such are my comments on the main heads of your Preface, which even in themselves cover practically the whole subject—more almost than the main body of the book that follows. Yet all I have said might have been summed up in this short alternative: Your Preface is complaining either about the words of God or the words of men. If it is about the words of men, it has been written wholly in vain and is no concern of ours. If it is about the words of God, it is wholly impious. It would therefore have been more useful to have a statement as to whether they were God’s words or men’s about which we are disputing. But perhaps this question will be dealt with in the Introduction which follows, and in the Disputation itself.
The points you raise in the epilogue to your Preface, however, do not impress me. You call our dogmas “fables” and “useless,” and suggest that we ought rather to follow Paul’s example of preaching Christ crucified and speaking wisdom among the perfect, I Cor. 1:23; 2:2, 6; and you say that Scripture has a language of its own, variously adapted to the state of the hearers, so that you think it must be left to the prudence and charity of the teacher to teach what is expedient for his neighbor. All this is inept and ignorant, for we too teach nothing but Jesus crucified. But Christ crucified brings all these things with him, even including that “wisdom among the perfect”; for there is no other wisdom to be taught among Christians than that which is hidden in a mystery and pertains to the perfect, not to mere children of a Jewish and legal people that glories in works without faith, as Paul shows in I Corinthians, chapter 2—unless you want the preaching of Christ crucified to mean nothing other than the making of the bare statement, “Christ has been crucified.”
As for your saying that “God in Scripture is angry, rages, hates, grieves, has mercy, repents, yet none of these changes takes place in God,” here you are looking for a bone to pick, for these things do not make Scripture obscure or in need of adaptation to the various hearers, except that some people like to make difficulties where there are none. These are matters of grammar and the figurative use of words, which even schoolboys understand; but we are concerned with dogmas, not grammatical figures, in this discussion.
COMMENTS ON ERASMUS’ INTRODUCTION
The Evidence of Tradition on Behalf of Free Choice
In introducing the Disputation, then, you promise to abide by the canonical Scriptures, since Luther holds himself bound by the authority of no other writer. Very well, I accept your promise, although you do not give it because you regard those other writers as useless for your purpose, but in order to spare yourself fruitless labor. For you do not really approve of my audacity, or whatever else this principle of mine should be called. You are not a little impressed by such a numerous body of most learned men, who have found approval in so many centuries, among whom were some most skilled in divine studies, some of most godly life, some of them martyrs, many renowned for miracles, besides more recent theologians and so many universities, councils, bishops and popes. In short, on that side stand erudition, genius, multitude, magnitude, altitude, fortitude, sanctity, miracles—everything one could wish. On my side, however, there is only Wycliffe and one other, Laurentius Valla (though Augustine, whom you overlook, is entirely with me), and these carry no weight in comparison with those; so there remains only Luther, a private individual and a mere upstart, with his friends, among whom there is no such erudition or genius, no multitude or magnitude, no sanctity, no miracles—for they could not even cure a lame horse. They make a parade of Scripture, yet they are as uncertain about it as the other side, and though they boast of the Spirit they give no sign of possessing it; and there are other things “which at great length thou couldst recount.” So it is the same with us as the wolf said to the nightingale he had devoured, “You are a voice and nothing more.” They talk, you say, and for this alone they want to be believed.
I confess, my dear Erasmus, that you have good reason to be moved by all these things. I myself was so impressed by them for more than ten years that I think no one else has ever been so disturbed by them. I, too, found it incredible that this Troy of ours, which for so long a time and through so many wars had proved invincible, could ever be taken. And I call God to witness on my soul, I should have continued so, I should be just as moved today, but for the pressure of my conscience and the evidence of facts that compel me to a different view. You can well imagine that my heart is not of stone; and even if it were, it could well have melted in the great waves and storms with which it had to struggle and the buffeting it received, when I dared to do what I saw would bring down all the authority of those whom you have listed, like a flood upon my head.
But this is not the place to tell the story of my life or works, nor have we undertaken these things in order to commend ourselves, but in order to extol the grace of God. The sort of person I am, and the spirit and purpose with which I have been drawn into this affair, I leave to Him who knows that all these things have been effected by his free choice, not mine—though the whole world itself ought to have been long ago aware of this. You clearly put me into a very unpleasant position by this Introduction of yours, since I cannot easily get out of it without singing my own praises and censuring so many of the Fathers. But I will be brief. In erudition, genius, the number of authorities supporting me, and everything else I am, as you rightly judge, inferior. But suppose I ask you what is a manifestation of the Spirit, what miracles are, what sanctity is; to these three questions, so far as I know you from your letters and books, you would seem to be too inexperienced and ignorant to give one syllable of an answer. Or if I should press you to say which man, of all those you boast about, you can certainly show to have been or to be a saint, or to have had the Spirit, or to have performed real miracles, I think you would have to work very hard at it, and all to no purpose. You repeat many things that are commonly said and publicly preached, and you do not realize how much of credibility and authority they lose when summoned to the bar of conscience. It is a true proverb that many pass for saints on earth whose souls are in hell.
But we will grant you, if you wish, that they all were saints, all had the Spirit, all performed miracles—though you do not ask for this. Tell me this: Was it in the name or by the power of free choice, or to confirm the dogma of free choice, that any of them became a saint, received the Spirit, and performed miracles? Far from it, you will say; it was in the name and by the power of Jesus Christ, and in support of the doctrine of Christ, that all these things were done. Why, then, do you adduce their sanctity, their possession of the Spirit, and their miracles in support of the dogma of free choice when these were not given or done for that purpose? Their miracles, their possession of the Spirit, and their sanctity, therefore, speak for us who preach Jesus Christ and not the powers or works of men. Now, how is it surprising if those men, holy, spiritual, and workers of miracles as they were, sometimes under the influence of the flesh spoke and acted according to the flesh, when this happened more than once even to the apostles in the time of Christ himself? For you yourself do not deny, but assert, that free choice is not a matter of the Spirit or of Christ, but a human affair, so that the Spirit, who was promised in order to glorify Christ, John 16:14, could in any case not preach free choice. If, therefore, the Fathers have sometimes preached free choice, they have certainly spoken from carnal motives (since they were but men) and not by the Spirit of God, and much less have they performed miracles in support of free choice. So what you say about the sanctity, Spirit, and miracles of the Fathers is beside the point, since what is proved by them is not free choice but the dogma of Jesus Christ as opposed to the dogma of free choice.
But go on, you who are on the side of free choice, and who assert that a dogma of this kind is true (that is, that it has come from the Spirit of God); go on, I say, and manifest the Spirit, perform your miracles, display your sanctity! You who assert, assuredly owe these things to us who deny. From us who deny, the Spirit, sanctity, and miracles ought not to be demanded, but from you who assert, they ought. For a negative posits nothing, is nothing, and is held to prove nothing, nor is it obliged to be proved; it is the affirmative that ought to be proved. You people affirm the power of free will, which is a human affair, and no one has ever yet seen or heard of a miracle done by God in support of any dogma concerning a human affair, but only in support of one that is divine. And we are commanded not to admit any dogma that is not first proved by divine attestations, Deut. 18:22. Moreover, Scripture calls man “vanity” Eccles. 1:2; Ps. 39:5; 62 and a “lie” Rom. 3:4, which is nothing else than saying that all things human are vanities and lies. Go on, then, go on, I say, and prove that your dogma concerning a human vanity and lie is true! Where is now your manifestation of the Spirit, where is your sanctity, where are your miracles? I see talent, learning, authority; but God has given those even to the heathen.
We will not, however, compel you to produce great miracles, nor even to cure a lame horse, lest you plead in excuse the carnality of the age; though God is wont to confirm his dogmas by miracles without regard to the carnality of the age, for he is not moved by the merits or demerits of a carnal age, but by sheer mercy, grace, and a love of establishing souls in solid truth for his glory. You are given the option of working a miracle as small as you please. Indeed, to spur your Baal to action I will taunt and challenge you, I Kings 18:27, to create as much as a single frog in the name and by the power of free choice, though the heathen and ungodly magicians in Egypt were able to create a great many, Ex. 8:7. I will not set you the heavy task of creating lice, which they could not produce either, Ex. 8:18. I will say something still easier. Take a single flea or louse—since you tempt and mock our God with this talk about curing a lame horse—and if, after combining all the powers and concentrating all the efforts both of your god and all your supporters, you succeed in killing it in the name and by the power of free choice, you shall be the victors, your case shall be established, and we too will at once come and worship that god of yours, that wonderful killer of the louse. Not that I deny that you could even remove mountains; but it is one thing to say that something has been done by the power of free choice and another to prove it.
And what I have said about miracles, I say also about sanctity. If from such a series of ages, men, and everything else you have mentioned, you can show one work (if only the lifting of a straw from the ground), or one word (if only the syllable “my”), or one thought (if only the faintest sigh), arising from the power of free choice, by which they have applied themselves to grace or merited the Spirit or obtained pardon or done anything alongside God, however slight (I do not say by which they have been sanctified), then again you shall be the victors and we the vanquished—by the power, I say, and in the name of free choice. (For the things that are done in men by the power of divine creation have testimonies of Scripture in abundance.) And you certainly ought to give such a demonstration, unless you want to look ridiculous as teachers by spreading dogmas through the world with such a superior air and such authority about a thing for which you produce no tangible evidence. Otherwise, they will be called dreams and of no consequence whatever, which is by far the most shameful thing that could happen to such great men of so many centuries with all their learning and sanctity and their power to work miracles. In that case we shall prefer the Stoics to you, for although even they described such a wise man as they never saw yet they did endeavor to express some aspect of him in their lives. You people are not able to express anything at all, not even the shadow of your dogma.
I say the same with regard to the Spirit. If out of all the assertors of free choice you can show a single one who has had the strength of mind or feeling even in such small degree as to be able in the name and by the power of free choice to look beyond a single farthing, to forgo a single crumb, or to bear a single word or gesture of ill will (to say nothing of despising wealth, life, and reputation), then take the palm again, and we will willingly admit defeat. And this you really ought to demonstrate to us, after all your bragging words about the power of free choice, or again you will seem to be wrangling about goat’s wool, like the man who watched the play in an empty theater. But I can easily show you, on the contrary, that holy men such as you boast about, whenever they come to pray or plead with God, approach him in utter forgetfulness of their own free choice, despairing of themselves and imploring nothing but pure grace alone, though they have merited something very different. This was often the case with Augustine, and it was so with Bernard when, at the point of death, he said, “I have lost my time, because I have lived like a lost soul.” I do not see that any power is claimed here which could apply itself to grace, but every power is accused of having done nothing but turn away from grace. It is true that these same saints sometimes in their disputations spoke differently about free choice, but that is just what I see happening to everybody; they are different when they are intent on words or arguments from what they are when they are concerned with feelings and actions. In the former case they speak differently from what they previously felt, and in the latter they feel differently from what they previously said. But men are to be measured by their feelings rather than their talk, whether they are godly or ungodly.
But we grant you still more. We do not demand miracles, the Spirit, sanctity; we return to the dogma itself. All we ask is that you should at least indicate to us what work or word or thought this power of free choice stirs up, attempts, or performs, in order to apply itself to grace. It is not enough to say, “There is a power, there is a power, there is a definite power of free choice,” for what is easier to say than this? Nor is this worthy of those most learned and holy men who have found approval in so many centuries. The child must be named, as the German proverb says. We must have a definition of what that power is, what it does, what it suffers, what happens to it. For example, to put it very crudely, the question is whether this power has a duty, or makes an attempt, to pray, or fast, or labor, or discipline the body, or give alms, or anything else of this kind; for if it is a power, it must do some sort of work. But here you are dumber than Seriphian frogs and fishes. And how could you give a definition, when on your own testimony you are still uncertain about the power itself, disagreeing with each other and inconsistent with yourselves? What is to be done about a definition when the thing defined does not itself remain constant?
But let us suppose that sometime after the Platonic millennium you reach agreement about the power itself, and its work is then defined as being to pray or fast or to do some such thing as still perhaps lies hidden in the world of Plato’s Ideas. Who can assure us that this is true, that it is pleasing to God, and that we are safe and on the right lines? Especially when you yourselves admit that it is a human affair, which does not have the testimony of the Spirit, since it has been much discussed by the philosophers and was in the world before Christ came and the Spirit was sent down from heaven. So it is very certain that this dogma was not sent down from heaven, but sprang from the earth long before; and therefore a great deal of evidence is needed to confirm it as certain and true.
Granted, then, that we are private individuals and few in number, while you are publicans and there are many of you; we are uneducated, you most learned; we stupid, you most talented; we were born yesterday, you are older than Deucalion; we have never been accepted, you have the approval of so many centuries: in a word, we are sinners, carnal men, and dolts, while you with your sanctity, Spirit, and miracles inspire awe in the very demons. You should at least grant us the right of Turks and Jews, and let us ask the reason for your dogma, as your St. Peter has commanded you, I Peter 3:15. Our request is very modest, for we do not demand that it should be proved by sanctity, the Spirit, or miracles, though on your principles we could do so, since you demand this of others. Indeed, we do not even require you to produce any instance of a thought, word, or deed in connection with your dogma, but only to explain the thing itself and make clear what you wish us to understand by it, and in what form.
If you will not or cannot give an example of it, at least let us try to do so. Imitate the pope and his crowd, who say, “Do as we say, not as we do.” Tell us what work that power requires to be done, and we will set about it and leave you at leisure. Shall we not obtain at least this request from you? The more numerous, ancient, and important you are, and the more you on all counts surpass us, the greater is your disgrace that when we, who in your eyes are of no account whatsoever, wish to learn and practice your dogma, you are unable to prove it to us either by a miracle, such as the killing of a louse, or by any tiny motion of the Spirit, or any tiny work of sanctity. You are unable, in fact, to exemplify it in a single deed or word; what is more—and this is unprecedented—you cannot even give an account of its form or meaning, so that at least we might imitate it. What fine teachers of free choice you are! What are you now but “a voice and nothing more”? Who is it now, Erasmus, that boasts of the Spirit and manifests nothing of it, or who merely talks and waits forthwith to be believed? Is it not those friends of yours, who have been so extolled to the skies? Is it not you, who do not even speak, and yet make such boasts and demands?
We entreat you therefore for Christ’s sake, my dear Erasmus, you and your friends, to give us leave at least to be alarmed by the peril to our conscience, and to tremble with fear, or at least to defer our assent to a dogma that you yourself see to be nothing but an empty sound and a mere grinding out of syllables—I mean, “There is a power of free choice, there is a power of free choice”—even if you had achieved your utmost aim and all your points were proved and granted. Moreover, it is still uncertain even among your own party whether this empty term exists or not, since they are at variance with each other and inconsistent with themselves. It is most unfair, or rather it is quite the most wretched thing in the world, that our consciences, which Christ has redeemed with his own blood, should be harassed with the mere phantom of a single petty term, and that of doubtful status. Yet if we refuse to let ourselves be troubled by it, we are charged with unprecedented pride for having despised so many Fathers of so many centuries who have asserted free choice; though the truth is, as you see from what has been said, that they have entirely failed to give any definition of free choice, and the dogma of free choice is set up under the cover of their authority, although they are unable to make clear either its species or its names, and thus delude the world with a lying word.
And here, Erasmus, we recall your own advice given earlier, when you urged that questions of this kind should be left alone and that we should rather preach Christ crucified and the things that suffice for Christian godliness. This has all along been the object of our inquiry and discussion. For what else are we aiming at but that the simplicity and purity of Christian doctrine may prevail, while the things that have been invented and introduced alongside of it by men may be abandoned and disregarded? But you who give such advice to us do not follow it yourself, but rather the opposite: you write diatribes, you exalt the decrees of the popes, you boast of the authority of men, and you make every attempt to sidetrack us into things irrelevant and foreign to the Holy Scriptures, and to involve us in discussion of nonessentials, so that we may corrupt and confound the simplicity and genuineness of Christian godliness with man-made accretions. From this it is easily seen that you were not sincere in giving us that advice and are not serious in anything you write, but are confident that you can lead the world in any direction you like with the empty baubles of your words. Yet in fact you lead it nowhere, since you utter nothing but sheer contradiction always and everywhere, so that whoever called you a veritable Proteusor Vertumnuswas perfectly right. As Christ said: “Physician, heal thyself!” Luke 4:23. “ ‘Tis disgrace for a teacher when his own fault finds him out.”
Until you prove your affirmative, therefore, we stand by our negative; and even under the judgment of that whole choir of saints which you invoke, or rather of the whole world, we dare to say, and we glory in saying, that it is our duty not to admit something which is nothing and the nature of which cannot with certainty be shown. Furthermore, we charge all of you with incredible presumption or insanity when you demand that we admit this thing for no other reason than that it pleases you—who are so many, so great, and so ancient—to assert something which you yourselves confess to be nothing. Is it worthy conduct on the part of Christian teachers to delude the unhappy common people in the matter of piety by treating something that is nothing as if it were of great moment for salvation? Where is now that sharp Greek mind of yours which used to invent lies with at least some semblance of charm, but is here uttering falsehoods naked and unadorned? Where is that Latin industry which equaled the Greek, but which now can thus deceive and be deceived by the emptiest of words? But that is what happens to careless or evil-minded readers of books when they treat things that are the result of weakness in the Fathers and the saints as being all of the highest authority, so that the fault lies not with the authors, but with the readers. It is as though someone relying on the sanctity and authority of St. Peter should contend that everything St. Peter ever said was true, even including what he said when in Matthew 16:22 he sought, through his human weakness, to dissuade Christ from suffering, or when he bade Christ depart from him out of the ship, Luke 5:8, and many other instances, for which he was rebuked by Christ himself.
People of this kind are like those irresponsibles who, in order to raise a laugh, say that not everything in the Gospel is true, and seize on that verse in John 8:48 where the Jews say to Christ: “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?”; or this: “He deserves death” Matt. 26:66; or this: “We found this man perverting our nation, and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar” Luke 23:2. The assertors of free choice do the same, though for a different purpose, and not willfully like them, but through blindness and ignorance, when they take out of the Fathers what the latter, led astray by human weakness, have said in favor of free choice, and even oppose it to what the same Fathers in the strength of the Spirit have elsewhere said against free choice; then they proceed to press and force their point so that the better gives way to the worse. It thus comes about that they ascribe authority to the worse expressions because these are in accord with their worldly mind,and deny it to the better because those are contrary to their worldly mind. Why do we not rather choose the better, for there are many such in the Fathers? Let me give an example. What more worldly,nay, more impious, sacrilegious, and blasphemous thing could be said than Jerome’s familiar statement that “virginity peoples heaven, marriage the earth,”as if it were earth and not heaven that was intended for the patriarchs and apostles and Christian husbands and wives, or as if heaven were meant for heathen vestal virgins without Christ? Yet these and similar things the Sophists collect out of the Fathers, relying on quantity rather than quality to procure authority for them, just like that idiot Faber of Constance,who recently presented that “pearl” of his, I mean that Augean stable, to the public in order that the pious and learned might have something to disgust and sicken them.
The True Church, Which Does Not Err, Is Hidden from Men’s Sight
This is my answer to your statement that it is incredible that God should have concealed an error in his Church for so many centuries, and should not have revealed to any of his saints what we claim to be the chief doctrine of the gospel. First, we do not say that this error has been tolerated by God in his Church or in any of his saints. For the Church is ruled by the Spirit of God and the saints are led by the Spirit of God, Rom. 8:14. And Christ remains with his Church even to the end of the world, Matt. 28:20; and the Church of God is the pillar and ground of the truth, I Tim. 3:15. These things, I say, we know; for the creed that we all hold affirms, “I believe in the holy catholic church”; so that it is impossible for the Church to err, even in the smallest article. And even if we grant that some of the elect are bound in error all their lives, yet they must necessarily return to the right way before they die, since Christ says in John 10:28: “No one shall snatch them out of my hand.”
But here is the task, here is the toil,to determine whether those whom you call the Church are the Church, or rather, whether after being in error all their lives they were at last brought back before they died. For it does not immediately follow that if God has permitted all those whom you quote, from as many centuries as you like and most learned though they were, to be in error, therefore he has permitted his Church to err. Look at Israel, the people of God, where in so long a line of kings over so long a period of time not a single king is listed who did not err. And in the time of the prophet Elijah, everybody and everything in the public life of this people had so far fallen into idolatry that Elijah thought he alone was left, I Kings 18:22; and yet, although kings, princes, priests, prophets, and everything that could be called the People or Church of God was going to perdition, God had kept for himself seven thousand, I Kings 19:18. But who saw them, or knew them to be the People of God? Who, then, even at the present time would venture to deny that, concealed under those outstanding figures—for you mention none but men of public office and distinction—God has preserved for himself a Church among the common people, and has permitted those others to perish as he did in the Kingdom of Israel? For it is characteristic of God to lay low the picked men of Israel and slay their strong ones, Ps. 78:31, but to preserve the dregs and remnant of Israel, as Isaiah says, 10:22.
What happened in Christ’s own time, when all the apostles fell away, Matt. 26:31, 56 and he himself was denied and condemned by the whole people, and scarcely more than a Nicodemus, a Joseph, and the thief on the cross were saved? Were these then called the People of God? They were the remnant of the People, but they were not so called, and what was so called was not the People of God. Who knows but that the state of the Church of God throughout the whole course of the world from the beginning has always been such that some have been called the People and the saints of God who were not so, while others, a remnant in their midst, really were the People or the saints, but were never called so, as witness the stories of Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob? Look at the time of the Arians,when scarcely five Catholic bishops were preserved in the whole world, and they were driven from their sees, while the Arians reigned everywhere in the public name and office of the Church; nevertheless, Christ preserved his Church under these heretics, though in such a way that it was far from being recognized and regarded as the Church.
Under the reign of the pope, show me one bishop discharging his duty, show me one Council that has been concerned with matters of piety rather than robes,rank, revenues, and other profane trifles, which no one who was not insane could attribute to the Holy Spirit. Yet they are nonetheless called the Church, although all of them, at least while they live like this, are reprobates and anything but the Church. Yet even under them Christ has preserved his Church, but not so as to have it called the Church. How many saints do you suppose the minions of the Inquisitionalone have burned and murdered during the last few centuries? I mean men like John Huss, in whose time without doubt there lived many holy men in the same spirit.
Why do you not rather express amazement at this, Erasmus, that from the beginning of the world there has always been more outstanding talent, greater learning, and more earnest application among the heathen than among Christians or the People of God? For as Christ himself confesses, the children of this world are wiser than the children of light, Luke 16:8. What Christian can be compared to a Cicero alone (not to mention the Greeks) for talent, learning, or diligence? What, then, are we to say impeded such men, so that none of them was able to attain to grace? For they certainly exercised free choice to the utmost of their powers, and who will dare to say there was none among them who sought after truth with the utmost application? Yet we cannot but assert that none of them found it. Will you here too say it is incredible that all through history God should have left so many great men to themselves and let them strive in vain? Surely, if free choice were anything or could do anything, it must have existed and been able to do something in those men, in some one instance at least. But it has effected nothing, or rather, it always wrought in the contrary direction, so that by this single argument it can be sufficiently proved that free choice is nothing, since no sign of it can be produced from the beginning of the world to the end.
But to return to the point. How is it surprising if God allows all the great ones of the Church to walk in their own ways, when he has thus allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways, as Paul says in Acts 14:16? The Church of God is not as commonplace a thing, my dear Erasmus, as the phrase “the Church of God”; nor are the saints of God met with as universally as the phrase “the saints of God.” They are a pearl and precious jewels, which the Spirit does not cast before swine, Matt. 7:6, but keeps hidden, as Scripture says, Matt. 11:25, lest the ungodly should see the glory of God. Otherwise, if they were plainly recognized by all, how could they possibly be as harassed and afflicted in the world as they are? As Paul says: “If they had known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” I Cor. 2:8.
I do not say these things as denying that those whom you mention are the saints or the Church of God, but because if anyone does deny it, it cannot be proved that they are saints, but remains entirely uncertain, so that an argument based on their sanctity is not reliable enough for the confirmation of any dogma. I call them saints and regard them as such; I call them and believe them to be the Church of God; but I do so by the rule of love, not the rule of faith. For love, which always thinks well of everyone, and is not suspicious but believes and assumes the best about its neighbors, calls anyone who is baptized a saint; and no harm is done if it makes a mistake, for it is in the nature of love to be deceived, seeing it is exposed to all the uses and abuses of all men as the general servant of good and bad, faithful and unfaithful, true and false alike. But faith calls no one a saint unless he is declared so by a divine judgment, because it is in the nature of faith not to be deceived. Therefore, although we ought all to be regarded as saints by one another according to the law of love, yet no one ought to be decreed a saint according to the law of faith, so as to make it an article of faith that this or that person is a saint. That is the way in which that enemy of God, the pope, puts himself in the place of God, II Thess. 2:4, and canonizes men of his own party, whom he does not know, as saints.
All I say about these saints of yours, or rather ours, is that since they disagree with one another, those ought rather to have been followed who have spoken best, that is, against free choice and in support of grace, while those ought to have been ignored who, because of the infirmity of the flesh, have borne witness rather to the flesh than the Spirit. Similarly, with regard to those who are not consistent with themselves, the passages should have been selected and held on to where they speak under the influence of the Spirit, and those where they savor of the flesh should have been ignored. That was the proper thing for a Christian reader to do, as a clean beast that parts the hoof and chews the cud, Lev. 11:3. As it is, by failing to exercise judgment we swallow everything indiscriminately, or what is worse, by a perversion of judgment we throw away the better and accept the worse parts of the same authors. Then we attach to these worse parts the title and authority of their author’s sanctity, which has been deserved only because of what is best in them, and on account of the Spirit alone, not because of free choice or the flesh.
Scripture, with Its “Internal” and “External” Clariy, as the Test of Truth
What, then, are we to do? The Church is hidden, the saints are unknown. What and whom are we to believe? Or, as you very pointedly argue, who gives us certainty? How shall we prove the Spirit?If you look for learning, on both sides there are scholars; if for quality of life, on both sides are sinners; if for Scripture, both sides acknowledge it. But the dispute is not so much about Scripturewhich may not yet be sufficiently clear, as about the meaning of Scripture; and on both sides are men, of whom neither numbers nor learning nor dignity, much less fewness, ignorance, and humility, have anything to do with the case. The matter therefore remains in doubt and the case is still sub judice, so that it looks as if we might be wise to adopt the position of the Skeptics, unless the line you take is best, when you express your uncertainty in such a way as to aver that you are seeking to learn the truth, though in the meantime you incline to the side that asserts free choice, until the truth becomes clear.
To this I reply that there is something in what you say, but not the whole truth. For we shall not prove the spirits by arguments about learning, life, talent, numbers, dignity, ignorance, crudity, rarity, and lowliness. Nor do I approve of those who have recourse to boasting of the Spirit; for I have had this year and am still having, a sharp enough fight with those fanatics who subject the Scriptures to the interpretation of their own spirit.It is on this account also that I have hitherto attacked the pope, in whose kingdom nothing is more commonly stated or more generally accepted than the idea that the Scriptures are obscure and ambiguous, so that the spirit to interpret them must be sought from the Apostolic See of Rome. Nothing more pernicious could be said than this, for it has led ungodly men to set themselves above the Scriptures and to fabricate whatever they pleased, until the Scriptures have been completely trampled down and we have been believing and teaching nothing but the dreams of madmen. In a word, that saying is no human invention, but a virus sent into the world by the incredible malice of the prince of all demons himself.
What we say is this: the spirits are to be tested or proved by two sorts of judgment. One is internal, whereby through the Holy Spirit or a special gift of God, anyone who is enlightened concerning himself and his own salvation, judges and discerns with the greatest certainty the dogmas and opinions of all men. Of this it is said in I Corinthians 12:15: “The spiritual man judges all things, but himself is judged by no one.” This belongs to faith and is necessary for every individual Christian. We have called it above“the internal clarity of Holy Scripture.” Perhaps this was what those had in mind who gave you the reply that everything must be decided by the judgment of the Spirit. But this judgment helps no one else, and with it we are not here concerned, for no one, I think, doubts its reality.
There is therefore another, an external judgment, whereby with the greatest certainty we judge the spirits and dogmas of all men, not only for ourselves, but also for others and for their salvation. This judgment belongs to the public ministry of the Word and to the outward office, and is chiefly the concern of leaders and preachers of the Word. We make use of it when we seek to strengthen those who are weak in faith and confute opponents. This is what we earlier called “the external clarity of Holy Scripture.” Thus we say that all spirits are to be tested in the presence of the Church at the bar of Scripture. For it ought above all to be settled and established among Christians that the Holy Scriptures are a spiritual light far brighter than the sun itself, especially in things that are necessary to salvation. But because we have for so long been persuaded of the opposite by that pestilential saying of the Sophists that the Scriptures are obscure and ambiguous, we are obliged to begin by proving even that first principle of ours by which everything else has to be proved—a procedure that among the philosophers would be regarded as absurd and impossible.
First, then, Moses says in Deuteronomy 17:8 that if any difficult case arises, they are to go to the place which God has chosen for his name, and consult the priests there, who must judge it according to the law of the Lord. “According to the law of the Lord,” he says.But how can they judge unless the law of the Lord is externally quite clear,so as to give satisfaction to those concerned? Otherwise, it would have been enough to say that they must judge “according to their own spirit.” In all government of peoples, however, it is the rule that all matters of dispute should be settled by means of laws. But how could they be settled if the laws were not entirely certain and like shining lights among the people? For if laws are ambiguous and uncertain, not only would no disputes be decided, but neither would there be any certain norms of conduct; for laws are made in order that conduct may be regulated according to a certain pattern, and questions of dispute thus settled. That which is the standard and measure of other things, therefore, as the law is, ought to be the clearest and most certain of all. And if this light and certainty in laws is necessary, and is granted freely to the whole world by the bounty of God, in profane societies which have to do with temporal things, how is it conceivable that he should not give his Christians, his elect, laws and rules of much greater light and certainty by which they might direct themselves and settle all their disputes, seeing that he wishes temporal things to be despised by those who are his? For if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, how much more us, Matt. 6:30? But let us go on and overwhelm that pestilent saying of the Sophists with the Scriptures. Psalm 19:8 says: “The commandment of the Lord is lightsome,or pure, enlightening the eyes”; and surely what enlightens the eyes is not obscure or ambiguous. Psalm 119:130 says: “The opening of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple.” Here the words of God are represented as a kind of door, or an opening, which is plain for all to see and even illuminates the simple. Isaiah 8:20 sends all questions “to the law and the testimony,” and threatens that unless we do so the light of dawn will be denied us. In Zechariah 2: 42, it is commanded to seek the law from the mouth of the priest, as being the messenger of the Lord of Hosts; and what a fine messenger or ambassador of the Lord he would be if his message were both ambiguous to himself and obscure to the people, so that neither he knew what he was saying nor they what they were hearing! And what in the whole Old Testament, especially in Psalm 119, is more often said in praise of the Scripture than that it is a most certain and evident light? The psalmist celebrates its clarity thus: “A lamp to my feet and a light to my path” Ps. 119:105. He does not say, “A lamp to my feet is thy Spirit alone,” though he speaks of the work of the Spirit too: “Thy good Spirit shall lead me on the level ground” Ps. 143:10. In this way it is called both a “way” and a “path,” no doubt because of its entire certainty.
Let us turn to the New Testament. Paul says in Romans 1:2 that the gospel was promised through the prophets in the Holy Scriptures, and in Romans 3:21 that the righteousness of faith is witnessed to by the Law and the Prophets. Now, what sort of witness is it if it is obscure? But in all his epistles Paul represents the gospel as a word of light, a gospel of glory, and he does this explicitly and at length in II Corinthians, chapters 3 and 4, where he argues magnificently about the glory of both Moses and Christ. Peter, too, says in II Peter 1:19: “We have the very sure word of prophecy, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place.” Here Peter makes the Word of God a shining lamp and all else darkness; and do we want to make obscurity and darkness of the Word? Christ so often calls himself the light of the world, John 8:12; 9:5, and John the Baptist a burning and shining lamp, John 5:35, not because of the holiness of their lives, but without doubt because of the Word. So in Thessalonians,Paul calls them shining lights in the world because (he says): “You hold fast the word of life” Phil. 2:16; for life without the Word is uncertain and obscure.
And what are the apostles doing when they prove their own preachings by the Scriptures? Are they trying to obscure for us their own darkness with yet greater darkness? Or to prove something well known by something known less well? What is Christ doing in John 5:39, where he tells the Jews to search the Scriptures because they bear witness to him? Is he trying to put them in doubt about faith in him? What are those people in Acts 17:11 doing, who after hearing Paul were reading the Scriptures day and night to see if these things were so? Do not all these things prove that the apostles, like Christ himself, point us to the Scriptures as the very clearest witnesses to what they themselves say? What right have we, then, to make them obscure? I ask you, are these words of Scripture obscure or ambiguous: “God created heaven and earth”; “the Word became flesh”; and all those affirmations which the whole world has taken as articles of faith? And where have they been taken from? Isn’t it from the Scriptures?
And what is it that preachers do, to this very day? Do they interpret and expound the Scriptures? Yet if the Scripture they expound is uncertain, who can assure us that their exposition is certain? Another new exposition? And who will expound the exposition? At this rate we shall go on forever. In short, if Scripture is obscure or ambiguous, what point was there in God’s giving it to us? Are we not obscure and ambiguous enough without having our obscurity, ambiguity, and darkness augmented for us from heaven? What, then, will become of that word of the apostle. “All Scripture inspired by God is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction” II Tim. 3:16? Nay, Paul, it is not profitable at all, but the things you attribute to Scripture must be sought from the Fathers who have been approved for hundreds of years, and from the Roman See! So the statement must be revoked which you make in writing to Titus, that a bishop must be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to confute those who contradict it, and silence empty talkers and deceivers, Titus 1:9. How can he, when you leave theScriptures obscure to him, giving him, as it were, arms of tow and slender reeds for a sword? Then Christ, too, will have to recant, for he makes us a false promise when he says: “I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand” Luke 21:15. How will they not withstand when we oppose them with obscure and uncertain weapons? And why do you yourself, Erasmus, set out the nature of Christianity for us if the Scriptures are obscure to you?
But I fancy I have long since grown wearisome, even to dullards, by spending so much time and trouble on a matter that is so very clear. But that impudent and blasphemous saying that the Scriptures are obscure had to be overwhelmed in this way so that even you, my dear Erasmus, might realize what you are saying when you deny that Scripture is crystal clear. For you are bound to admit at the same time that all your saints whom you quote are much less crystal clear. For who is there to make us sure of their light if you make the Scriptures obscure? So those who deny that the Scriptures are quite clear and plain leave us nothing but darkness.
But here you will say, “All this is nothing to me; I do not say that the Scriptures are obscure in all parts (for who would be so crazy?), but only in this and similar parts.” I reply: neither do I say these things in opposition to you only, but in opposition to all who think as you do; moreover, in opposition to you I say with respect to the whole Scripture, I will not have any part of it called obscure. What we have cited from Peter holds good here, that the Word of God is for us “a lamp shining in a dark place” II Peter 1:19. But if part of this lamp does not shine, it will be a part of the dark place rather than of the lamp itself. Christ has not so enlightened us as deliberately to leave some part of his Word obscure while commanding us to give heed to it, for he commands us in vain to give heed if it does not give light.
Consequently, if the dogma of free choice is obscure or ambiguous, it does not belong to Christians or the Scriptures, and it should be abandoned and reckoned among those fables which Paul condemns Christians for wrangling about.If, however, it does belong to Christians and the Scriptures, it ought to be clear, open, and evident, exactly like all the other clear and evident articles of faith. For all the articles of faith held by Christians ought to be such that they are not only most certain to Christians themselves, but also fortified against the attacks of others by such manifest and clear Scriptures that they shut all men’s mouths and prevent their saying anything against them; as Christ says in his promise to us: “I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand” Luke 21:15. If, therefore, our mouth is so weak at this point that our adversaries can withstand it, his saying that no adversary can withstand our mouth is false. Either, therefore, we shall have no adversaries while maintaining the dogma of free choice (which will be the case if free choice does not belong to us), or if it does belong to us, we shall have adversaries, it is true, but they will not be able to withstand us.
But this inability of the adversaries to withstand (since the point arises here) does not mean that they are compelled to abandon their own position, or are persuaded either to confess or keep silence. For who can compel men against their will to believe, to confess their error, or to be silent? “What is more loquacious than vanity?” as Augustine says. But what is meant is that their mouth is so far stopped that they have nothing to say in reply and, although they say a great deal, yet in the judgment of common sense they say nothing. This is best shown by examples.
When Christ, in Matthew 22:23, put the Sadducees to silence by quoting Scripture and proving the resurrection of the dead from the words of Moses in Exodus 3:6: “I am the God of Abraham,” etc.; “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living,” here they could not resist or say anything in reply. But did they therefore give up their own opinion? And how often did he confute the Pharisees by the plainest Scriptures and arguments, so that the people clearly saw them convicted, and even they themselves perceived it? Nevertheless, they continued to be his adversaries. Stephen, in Acts 6:10 spoke, according to Luke, in such a way that they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke. But what did they do? Did they give way? On the contrary, being ashamed to be beaten, and not being able to withstand, they went mad, and shutting their ears and eyes they set up false witnesses against him (Acts 6:11–14).
See how this man stands before the Council and confutes his adversaries! After enumerating the benefits which God had bestowed on that people from the beginning, and proving that God had never ordered a temple to be built for him (for this was the question at issue and the substance of the charge against him), he at length concedes that a temple was in fact built under Solomon, but then he qualifies it in this way: “Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made with hands,” and in proof of this he quotes Isaiah 66:1: “What house is this that you build for me?” Tell me, what could they say here against so plain a Scripture? Yet they were quite unmoved and remained set in their own opinion; which leads him to attack them directly, in the words: “Uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always withstand the Holy Spirit,” etc. Acts 7:51. He says they withstand, although they were unable to withstand.
Let us come to our own times. When John Huss argues as follows against the pope on the basis of Matthew 16:18: “The gates of hell do not prevail against my church” (is there any ambiguity or obscurity here?), “but against the pope and his followers the gates of hell do prevail, for they are notorious the world over for their open impiety and wickedness” (is this also obscure?), “therefore the pope and his followers are not the church of which Christ speaks”—what could they say in reply to this, or how could they withstand the mouth that Christ had given him? Yet they did withstand, and they persisted until they burned him, so far were they from altering their opinion. Nor does Christ overlook this when he says, “Your adversaries will not be able to withstand.” They are adversaries, he says; therefore, they will withstand, for otherwise they would not be adversaries but friends; and yet they will not be able to withstand. What else does this mean but that in withstanding they will not be able to withstand?
If, accordingly, we are able so to confute free choice that our adversaries cannot withstand, even if they persist in their own opinion and withstand in spite of their conscience, we shall have done enough. For I have had enough experience to know that no one wants to be beaten and, as Quintiliansays, there is no one who would not rather seem to know than to learn, though it is a sort of proverb on everyone’s lips nowadays (from use, or rather abuse, more than from conviction): “I wish to learn, I’m ready to be taught, and when shown a better way, to follow it; I’m only human, and I may be wrong.” The fact is that under this mask, this fair show of humility, they find it possible quite confidently to say: “I’m not satisfied, I don’t see it, he does violence to the Scriptures, he’s an obstinate assertor”; because, of course, they are sure that no one will suspect such very humble souls of stubbornly resisting and even vigorously attacking recognized truth. So it is made to seem that their refusal to alter their opinion ought not to be set down to their own perverseness, but to the obscurity and ambiguity of the arguments.
That is just what the Greek philosophers did too; for lest any of them should seem to give way to another, even if he was plainly proved wrong, they began to deny first principles, as Aristotle records. Meanwhile, we blandly persuade ourselves and others that there are many good men in the world who would willingly embrace the truth if there were anyone to teach it clearly, and that it is not to be supposed that so many learned men for so many centuries have been in error or ignorance. As if we did not know that the world is the kingdom of Satan, where besides the blindness we are born with from our carnal nature, we are under the dominion of the most mischievous spirits, so that we are hardened in that very blindness and imprisoned in a darkness no longer human but demonic. If, then, Scripture is crystal clear, you say, why have men of outstanding talent in so many centuries been blind in this regard? I reply that they have been thus blind for the praise and glory of free choice, in order that this highly extolled power, by which man is able to apply himself to the things that pertain to eternal salvation—that is to say, a power that neither sees sights nor hears sounds, much less understands or seeks after them—might be shown to be what it is. For here the text applies that Christ and the Evangelists so often quote from Isaiah: “You shall indeed hear but never understand, and you shall see but never perceive” Isa. 6:9–10; Matt. 13:14. What else does this mean but that free choice or the human heart is so held down by the power of Satan that unless it is miraculously raised up by the Spirit of God it cannot of itself either see or hear things that strike the eyes and ears themselves so plainly as to be palpable?
Such is the misery and blindness of the human race! For thus even the Evangelists themselves, as they wonder how it could be that the Jews were not won by the works and words of Christ, which were plainly unanswerable and undeniable, find the answer in this passage of Scripture, namely, that man left to himself sees but does not perceive and hears but does not understand. What could be more unnatural? “The light,” he says, “shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not comprehend it” John 1:5. Who would believe this? Who ever heard anything like it? That the light shines in the darkness, and yet the darkness remains darkness and is not illuminated?
It is therefore not astonishing that in divine things men of outstanding talent through so many centuries have been blind. In human things it would be astonishing. In divine things the wonder is rather if there are one or two who are not blind, but it is no wonder if all without exception are blind. For what is the whole human race without the Spirit but (as I have said) the kingdom of the devil, a confused chaos of darkness, Gen. 1:2? That is why Paul calls the demons “the rulers of this darkness” Eph. 6:12, and says in I Corinthians 2:8: “None of the princes of this world knew the wisdom of God.” What do you suppose he thinks of the rest, when he asserts that the princes of the world are the slaves of darkness? For by princes he means the first and highest persons in the world, whom you call men of outstanding talent? Why were all the Ariansblind? Were there not among them men of outstanding talent? Why is Christ “foolishness to Gentiles” I Cor. 1:23? Are there not among the Gentiles men of outstanding talent? Why is he a “stumbling block to Jews”? Have there not been among the Jews men of outstanding talent? “God knows the thoughts of the wise,” says Paul, “that they are vain” I Cor. 3:20. He chose not to say “of men,” as the text itself does, Ps. 94:11, but points to the first and foremost among men, so that from these we may form a judgment about the rest.
But more about these things later perhaps. It may suffice for a beginning to have laid it down that the Scriptures are perfectly clear, and that by them such a defense of our position may be made that our adversaries will not be able to gainsay it. What cannot be defended in this way is no concern of ours and is no business of Christians. But if there are any who do not perceive this clarity, and are blind or blunder in this sunlight, then they only show—if they are ungodly—how great is the majesty and power of Satan over the sons of men, to make them neither hear nor take in the very clearest words of God. It is as if someone was deceived by a conjuring trick and imagined the sun to be a piece of dead coal or a stone to be gold. If they are godly, they may be reckoned among those of the elect who are led into error at times in order that the power of God may be demonstrated in us, without which we can neither see nor do anything at all.
For it is not due to the weakness of the human mind (as you make out) that the words of God are not understood, but, on the contrary, nothing is more fitted for understanding the words of God than such weakness; for it was for the sake of the weak and to the weak that Christ both came and sends his word. It is due to the malice of Satan, who sits enthroned in our weakness, resisting the Word of God. If Satan were not at work, the whole world of men would be converted by a single word of God once heard, and there would be no need of more.
Erasmus is in a Dilemma
Why do I go on? Why do we not end the case with this Introduction, and pronounce sentence on you from your own words, according to that saying of Christ: “By your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” Matt. 12:37? For you say that Scripture is not crystal clear on this point, and then you suspend judgment and discuss both sides of the question, asking what can be said for it and what against; and you do nothing else in the whole of this book, which for that reason you have chosen to call a Diatribe rather than an Apophasis or anything else, because you write with the intention of collating everything and affirming nothing.
If, then, Scripture is not crystal clear, how is it that those of whom you boast are not only blind at this point, but rash and foolish enough to define and assert free choice on the basis of Scripture, as though it were quite positive and plain? I mean your numerous body of most learned men who have found approval in so many centuries down to our day, most of whom have godliness of life as well as a wonderful skill in divine studies to commend them, and some gave testimony with their blood to the doctrine of Christ that they had defended with their writings. If you say this sincerely, it is a settled point with you that free choice has assertors endowed with a wonderful skill in Holy Writ, and that such men even bore witness to it with their blood. If that is true, they must have regarded Scripture as crystal clear; otherwise, what meaning would there be in that wonderful skill they had in Holy Writ? Besides, what levity and temerity of mind it would argue to shed their blood for something uncertain and obscure! That is not the act of martyrs of Christ, but of demons!
Now, you also should “consider whether more weight ought not to be ascribed to the previous judgments of so many learned men, so many orthodox, so many saints, so many martyrs, so many theologians old and new, so many universities, councils, bishops, and popes,” who have found the Scriptures crystal clear and have confirmed this both by their writings and their blood, or to your own “private judgment” alone when you deny that the Scriptures are crystal clear, and when perhaps you have never shed a single tear or uttered one sigh on behalf of the doctrine of Christ. If you think those men were right, why do you not imitate them? If you do not think so, why do you rant and brag with such a spate of words, as if you wanted to overwhelm me with a sort of tempest and deluge of oratory—which nevertheless falls with the greater force on your own head, while my ark rides aloft in safety? For you attribute to all these great men the greatest folly and temerity when you describe them as so highly skilled in Scripture and as having asserted it by their pen, their life and their death, although you maintain that it is obscure and ambiguous. This is nothing else but to make them most inexpert in knowledge and most foolish in assertion. I should not have paid them such a compliment in my private contempt of them as you do in your public commendation of them.
I have you here, therefore, on the horns of a dilemma, as they say. For one or the other of these two things must be false; either your saying that those men were admirable for their skill in Holy Writ, their life, and their martyrdom or your saying that Scripture is not crystal clear. But since you are drawn rather to believing that the Scriptures are not crystal clear (for that is what you are driving at throughout your book), we can only conclude that you have described those men as experts in Scripture and martyrs for Christ either in fun or in flattery and in no way seriously, merely in order to throw dust into the eyes of the uneducated public and make difficulties for Luther by loading his cause with odium and contempt by means of empty words. I, however, say that neither statement is true, but both are false. I hold, first, that the Scriptures are entirely clear; secondly, that those men, insofar as they assert free choice, are most inexpert in Holy Writ; and thirdly, that they made this assertion neither by their life nor their death, but only with their pen—and that while their wits were wandering.
I therefore conclude this little debate as follows. By means of Scripture, regarded as obscure, nothing definite has ever yet been settled or can be settled concerning free choice, on your own testimony. Moreover, by the lives of all men from the beginning of the world, nothing has been demonstrated in favor of free choice, as has been said above. Therefore, to teach something which is neither prescribed by a single word inside the Scriptures nor demonstrated by a single fact outside them is no part of Christian doctrine, but belongs to the True History of Lucian, except that Lucian, by making sport with ludicrous subjects in deliberate jest, neither deceives nor harms anyone, whereas these friends of ours with their insane treatment of a serious subject, and one that concerns eternal salvation, lead innumerable souls to perdition.
In this way I also might have put an end to this whole question about free choice, seeing that even the testimony of my adversaries favors my position and conflicts with theirs, and there can be no stronger proof than the personal confession and testimony of a defendant against himself. But since Paul bids us silence empty talkers, Titus 1:10, let us go into the details of the case and deal with the subject in the order in which the Diatribe proceeds, first confuting the arguments adduced in favor of free choice, then defending arguments of our own that have been attacked, and lastly contending against free choice on behalf of the grace of God. The True History is a novel of fantastic adventure, about which the writer warns the reader at the start: “I write of things which are not and never could have been, and therefore my reader should by no means believe them” (Vera historia i. 4).
WA 18, 600–602.
Erasmus’ De libero arbitrio was published in September, 1524, Luther’s De servo arbitrio not until December, 1525. For the meaning of Diatribe and the translation of arbitrium see pp. xi f. and 8.
The Maccabees were the intrepid leaders of the Jewish revolt against the tyranny of Antiochus Epiphanes (ca. 166 B.C.). “Assertor” refers to Luther’s Assertion of all the Articles Condemned by the Latest Bull of Leo X (1521); see above, p. 8.
Literally: “a barbarian who has always lived among barbarians.” Possibly an ironic allusion to Erasmus’ Book Against the Barbarians (Antibarbarorum liber), first published in 1520. For Erasmus the “barbarians” were those who opposed bonae literae or “good letters”; on which see p. 6.
A contemptuous term, used also by Erasmus, to denote the Scholastic theologians.
E.g., in the Lectures on Romans (1516; WA 56, 155–528; LCC 15, 3–419), the Quaestio de viribus et voluntate hominis (1516; WA 1, 145 ff.), the Disputation Against Scholastic Theology (1517; WA 1, 224 ff.; LW 31, 9 ff.), the Heidelberg Disputation, esp. Theses 13–15 (1518; WA 1, 354; LW 31, 40), the Lectures on the Psalms (1519–1521; WA 5, 172 ff.; 622 ff.), the Assertio (1521; WA 7, 142 ff.), and Defence and Explanation of All the Articles (Grund und Ursach) (1521; WA 7, 446 ff.; LW 32, 3 ff.)
Loci communes rerum theologicarum, first edition 1521.
Cf. Matt. 11:7.
Cf. Luke 19:40.
A figure of Greek mythology, supposed to have the power of changing himself into different shapes so as to avoid capture. Cf. Ovid Metamorphoses viii. 730 f.; Erasmus, Adagia XLIII.
Literally: “the prudence or knavery of my flesh.”
“Lucrifaciam”; cf. Matt. 8:15; I Cor. 9:19 ff.
“Non omnia possumus omnes, ” Virgil Eclogue viii. 63.
WA 18, 603–605.
Diatribe, EAS 4, 6.
“Ut ille ad Rhombum.” The allusion is obscure. “Rhombus” can mean (1) “a magician’s circle” or (2) a kind of fiat-fish, “a turbot.” There are examples of the former meaning in Ovid Amores i. 8.7, and Propertius, Elegiae ii. 28.35, but these hardly seem relevant here. An example of the latter meaning in Juvenal Satires iv. 119–121, may however be apposite. Juvenal tells how a huge turbot is caught and taken to the Emperor Domitian, who holds a solemn council to decide what to do with it. Among those present is an evil informer named Catullus, who is blind and who sycophantically praises the turbot, groping in one direction while the turbot lies in the other. Here we have at least the idea of a man making a speech off the point, which is more or less what Luther accuses Erasmus of doing.
Adherents of the philosophic school of Plato (the Academy), some of whose later followers adopted a skeptical attitude.
Cf. Col. 2:2; I Thess. 1:5; Heb. 6:11; 10:22.
The modern Aspraspitia; a town in Phocis, on the bay of Anticyra in the Corinthian Gulf; formerly famous for its black hellebore, an herb regarded as a cure for insanity. Cf. Horace Satires ii. 3.166; Ars poetica 300.
See p. 17, n. 10.
The word “grasp” here and throughout this paragraph represents the Latin assequi (literally: “follow”), which Erasmus has used and with which Luther makes play.
Cf. Terence Eunuchus II.ii.21.
Lucian of Samosata (ca. A.D. 125–180), a Greek satirist. Erasmus had published an edition of his Dialogues.
Epicurus (341–270 B.C.), Greek philosopher; taught that pleasure is the highest good (hedonism). The “pig from Epicurus’ sty” comes from Horace Epistles i. 4.16, where the poet uses the phrase as a humorous description of himself. (Epicurus did not mean “pleasure” in its grosser sense; he intended rather the “contentment” that results from relinquishing desires, fears, and ambitions. But many Greek and very many Roman “Epicureans” failed to make this distinction.)
WA 18, 606–609. 13 Diatribe, EAS 4,
Diatribe, EAS 4, 12 f.: “There are some things of which God has willed us to be completely ignorant, such as the day of our death and the Day of Judgment … and some things which he has willed us so to look into that we venerate him in mystic silence. Thus there are many passages in the sacred volumes on which many commentators have tried their skill, but no one has really removed their obscurity, as for example: the distinction between the persons in the Godhead, the union of the divine . and human natures in Christ, and the unforgivable sin. Yet there are other things which God has willed to be most plainly evident, among which are the precepts for a good life.”
Or: “sacred letters,” a phrase which for Luther is virtually synonymous with “Holy Scripture,” although as contrasted with the “good letters” of classical scholarship in which Erasmus and the Humanists were specially interested, it could have the somewhat wider connotation of “sacred learning.”
Diatribe, EAS 4, 10 f.: “There are secret places in Scripture into which God has not wished us to penetrate too deeply, and if we try to do so, then the deeper we go the darker it gets, so that in this way we may be led to acknowledge both the unfathomable majesty of the divine wisdom and the weakness of the human mind. It is like that cavern near Corycos of which Pomponius Mela tells, which begins by alluring and drawing one to itself by the pleasantness of its aspect, and then as one goes deeper a certain terror and majesty of the divine presence inhabiting it makes one draw back. So when we come to such a place, it is in my opinion wiser and more reverent to cry with Paul: ‘O the depth …!’.” (Rom. 11:33 ff. ) The cave of Corycos, now Khorgos, in Cilicia was renowned in ancient times as being one of the entrances to the underworld. It is described by the Roman geographer Pomponius Mela (1st century A.D. ) in his De chorographia i. 13.72. An edition of Mela’s work was published at Vienna in 1518.
The pronoun “eius” can mean “his,” “her,” or “its.”
Isa. 40:13 is here quoted as in Rom. 11:34 and I Cor. 2:16.
See p. 24, n. 13.
Cf. pp. 89 ff.
WA 18, 609–614.
“Christianam pietatem.” The word “pietas” is variously represented in our text by religion,” “godliness,” “piety,” as seems best to suit the context in each case.
Cf. p. 24, n. 10.
Cf. p. 24, n. 11.
“Das ist zu viel.” Luther drops into German here (for the first and only time in the book), no doubt owing to the intensity of his feelings on the subject.
Cf. Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics I.vi. 1096a.16, where Aristotle refers to his “friendship for the authors of the theory of Ideas” (Socrates and Plato) which he feels bound to criticize, and says: “It is necessary, in order to preserve truth, that we should sacrifice private feelings, especially as we are philosophers.” Cf. also Plato Republic 595D: “a man is not to be honored above truth.”
Cf. Diatribe, EAS 4, 18: “Suppose it were true in a certain sense, as Augustine somewhere says, that God works both good and evil in us, and rewards his own good works in us and punishes his evil works. What a window to impiety would the public avowal of such an opinion open to countless mortals! Especially in view of the great stupidity, indolence, and maliciousness of mankind, and their inveterate propensity toward every kind of ungodliness. What weakling will continue in the endless and wearisome warfare against his own flesh? What evildoer will take pains to amend his life? Who will be able to bring himself to love with all his heart a God who has created hell seething with eternal torments in order to punish unhappy men for his own misdeeds, as if he delighted in human misery?—for that is how most people will understand it.”
The following passages present Erasmus’ description of Christianity as stated in the Diatribe and his reaction in the Hyperaspistes to Luther’s criticism of it (pp. 28 ff.).
(1) Diatribe, EAS 4, 10 f. “So in my opinion, as far as free choice is concerned, what we have learnt from Holy Writ is this: if we are in the way of true religion we should eagerly press on to better things, forgetting the things that are behind; if we are entangled in sins, we should strive with all our might, have recourse to the remedy of penitence and entreat by all means the mercy of the Lord, without which no human will or endeavor is effective; and whatever is evil in us, let us impute to ourselves, whatever is good let us ascribe wholly to the divine benevolence, to which we owe our very being; then for the rest, let us believe that whatever befalls us in this life, whether joyful or sad, it has been sent by God for our salvation, and that no wrong can be done to anyone by him, who by nature is just, even if some things happen that we feel we have not deserved, nor should anyone despair of forgiveness from a God who is by nature most merciful. To hold fast to these things, I say, is in my judgment sufficient for Christian godliness, and we have no call to force our way with irreverent inquisitiveness into those concealed, not to say superfluous, things, such as: whether God foreknows anything contingently; whether our will accomplishes anything in things pertaining to eternal salvation; whether it simply suffers the action of grace; whether what we do, be it of good or ill, we do by necessity or rather suffer to be done to us.”
(2) Hyperaspistes, EAS 4, 294 ff.: “You twist my words here, as if I were giving a formal definition of the whole of Christianity for everybody; whereas I have simply given what should be enough for ordinary people, in contrast to the highly debatable and almost inexplicable problems that beset the subject of free choice. Tell me: where God is named—at least the God of the Christians—is Christ not there? Unless you do not hold Christ to be God! And where the word ‘Christian’ is used, is not Christ presupposed? In whose books is the name of Jesus Christ more often inculcated than in mine? And after such evident and baseless calumny, you proceed with a tragic air: ‘What are we to say here, Erasmus? You reek of nothing but Lucian, and you breathe out on me the vast drunken folly of Epicurus.’ … Now see how inconsistent you are, you man of inflexible steel, for whom Erasmus is a Proteus! That is what commonly happens when a person does not speak quite honestly. I advise that a Christian should submit himself wholly to the will of God, and I ‘reek of nothing but Lucian, and breathe out the drunken folly of Epicurus.’ Is that the advice of one who denies that there is any God? Does it ‘reek of Lucian,’ who was called an atheist because in his books he derides all the gods of the heathen, and thus far might have deserved to be called pious if he had known the true God? Does it ‘breathe the drunken folly of Epicurus’? How can anyone commit himself wholly to God if he does not believe that God exists, or that if he does exist he is untouched by any concern for human affairs? Again, if a man believes that all things, both joyful and sad, are sent to the godly for our salvation, does he reckon that human affairs are of no concern to God? Observe time after time, Luther, how you are carried away by your impetuous spirit, to which you much too readily yield, little though it suits the role in which you have cast yourself. Yet as if you had already achieved with unanswerable arguments what you intended, you celebrate a boastful, prolix and magnificent triumph through several chapters. I am not surprised, Luther, that these words: ‘We should strive with all our might, have recourse to the remedy of penitence, and entreat by all means the mercy of the Lord, without which no human will or endeavor is effective’ etc., seem to you to be without Christ, without the Spirit, and colder than ice, since they are not in accord with your dogmas, and anything out of harmony with them is in your view impious. They also seem to you not sincerely meant, but dragged out of me by fear of the pontiffs and tyrants lest I should seem to be altogether an atheist! Tell me, you reader of hearts, is there any passage in my numerous works that speaks differently about free choice than I do here, in accordance with the Church’s definition and the opinion of orthodox thinkers? Or has anyone ever heard me express approval of your view of free choice? How then have you the effrontery to pretend that what I say has been dragged out of me by fear of princes? I would rather not have crossed swords with you, partly because I saw I should accomplish nothing … partly because I would rather have given the time to other studies. So if you say I entered the lists against my inclination, you are not far from the truth. But if you suppose I secretly share your view, you are either totally deluded or shamelessly inventing this as many other things. It was unwillingly and with reluctance that I agreed to fight, but in the fight I have defended nothing but what I have always believed and believe today, namely that to which I have borne witness also in my Diatribe. And already long ago you were angry with me—as your published letters show—because I differed from you on the subject of free choice. Whence, then, this new ‘fear of tyrants’ that has forced from me these pitiful utterances contrary to my real opinion? Be sure of this, Luther, that there is not one of your dogmas—those that have been condemned, I mean—in which I wholly agree with you, although what you have written against the corrupt morals of the church is truer than I could wish, and on that score I am far from disagreeing with you. So in future you can leave out those smooth appellations: ‘my dear Erasmus, my dear Erasmus’ and keep that sort of pat on the head for your sworn supporters.”
Ars poetica 39 f.
Georgics I. 50 ff. The adjectives are a sarcastic application of Erasmus’ mode of thinking to Virgil.
Sallust De conjuratione Catilinae I.
See p. 30, n. 27 (1).
WA 18, 614–620.
 34 Roman rhetorician (ca. A.D. 35–95), author of the Institutio oratoria, which Luther knew and valued highly.
 35 I.e., in such a way that it could have been otherwise.
 36 I.e., in such a way that it could not have been otherwise.
 Note that Luther interprets “contingency” as virtually equivalent to “chance,” as the Schoolmen did not. In Scholastic theology a distinction is made between necessitas consequentiae and necessitas consequentis, or “necessity of consequence” and “necessity of the thing consequent.” The latter is absolute, the former conditional necessity, and the latter excludes while the former includes contingency, i.e., freedom. E.g., whatever God wills necessarily happens—with conditional necessity, since God is under no necessity to will it. If he wills it, it happens. But it also happens in the way in which he wills it to happen, whether necessarily (i.e., with absolute necessity) or contingently (i.e., with conditional necessity). Thus—we might say—man as to his nature is by absolute necessity an animate, not inanimate being, and is possessed among other things of free will; but his conduct, of which his free will is the contingent cause, is what it is only by conditional necessity, since he can will to change it. But the contingency of man’s will as a secondary cause in no way impedes the will of God as the First and Universal Cause, nor does it impair his foreknowledge of man’s conduct as its effect. For as the First Cause, God provides and works through secondary causes, both necessary and contingent, in order to produce in some cases necessarily and in others contingently the effects he wills to occur. Furthermore, although we human beings can have certain knowledge of a contingent effect when it has been produced and is present before us, but only conjectural knowledge so long as it has yet to be produced as a future event, God is not subject to our temporal limitations. He knows contingent things, not successively, as we do, but simultaneously, because his knowledge is measured by eternity, which is simultaneously whole and comprises all time, so that all things that are in time are present to him from eternity. (Cf. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I. q.14. a.13, q.19. a.8.) Luther dismisses the distinction between the two sorts of necessity as a mere play on words, although he himself distinguishes between necessitas violenta or coactionis (“the necessity of force or coercion”) and necessitas immutabilitatis (“the necessity of immutability”). The latter he appears to equate with absolute necessity, though the Schoolmen equated it with conditional necessity. For Erasmus’ response to Luther’s interpretation see p. 42, n. 45. On this whole subject see H. J. McSorley, Luther: Right or Wrong? An Ecumenical-Theological Study of Luther’s Major Work, The Bondage of the Will (New York: Paulist Press and Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1969), pp. 310–335.
This paragraph is given in a footnote in the Weimar edition (WA 18, 616, n. 1), where it is cited as having appeared first in the Jena edition of Luther’s works (1567). Whether or not it came from Luther’s hand, it undoubtedly expresses his view, and the importance of its contents sufficiently explains its inclusion here.
On the two kinds of necessity see p. 38, n. 37. Erasmus refers to them in the Diatribe in connection with the case of Judas (EAS 4, 102 f.), as also does Luther on p. 194 below. In the Hyperaspistes Erasmus complains that Luther has here taken a remark of his from the middle of the Diatribe and treated it quite out of context (EAS 4, 346).
Manilius, Astronomica iv. 14, “certa stant omnia lege”; not, as Luther and previous editors supposed, from Virgil. Cf. WA 7, 146, where it is correctly attributed to Manilius.
Aeneid x. 467.
Ibid., vi. 146.
Ibid., vi. 882.
Ibid., ii. 291.
Erasmus replies to Luther’s criticism as follows (Hyperaspistes, EAS 4, 350): “You teach us religiously enough that the will of God is omnipotent and the foreknowledge of God most certain, and that anyone who doubts this is completely ignorant of God and certainly cannot trust his promises if he can be deceived and speak falsely. I must admit that these things are piously said, and they have been said more than once by me in my writings. But what has all this to do with me when I am warning against debating such matters, that is, casting doubt upon them, especially in the presence of the unsophisticated? If, however, you believe that God knows everything necessarily and nothing contingently, then we really shall have to discuss them, at least if we follow your reasoning, lest we imagine God to be ignorant or a liar. For just as you think we ought to discuss free choice because anyone who does not know that our will only suffers and grace alone acts, is godless, so the same argument will persuade us that this subject too must be brought up for discussion. And yet the theologians who discuss whether God knows anything contingently, continually assert what you assert, that God’s foreknowledge cannot be mistaken, that God is no liar, that God’s promises are most certainly to be trusted, nor do they think that the certitude of the divine foreknowledge is imperilled by anything that happens contingently, as Laurentius Valla has admirably explained. They, however, define ‘contingent’ rather more accurately than you do.”
Diatribe, EAS 4, 14.
WA 18, 620–630.
Diatribe, EAS 4, 14.
Ibid.: “Perhaps it is true, as the Sophists are given to blather *garrire], that God, according to his own nature, is not less present in a beetle’s hole (not to mention the more vulgar expression which they are not ashamed to use) than in heaven, yet it would be unprofitable to discuss this before the common herd.”
Erasmus replies as follows (Hyperaspistes, EAS 4, 358 ff.): “Like a doctor who distinguishes between different sorts of fevers and what should be done or avoided in each case, so I distinguish different sorts of questions. First, those of which God has willed us to be ignorant … which it is wrong to discuss. Then there are some he has willed us to know very well, and these I say should be thoroughly taught. There are also some which it is right to examine up to a point, but no further than is necessary.… In this class I place questions relating to free choice.… Lastly, I reckon there are some things which, although they are true, cannot be told to all and sundry without endangering godliness and concord, but must be handled with care. And among these I place many which you are now publishing in the German language for laymen (e.g., concerning evangelical liberty) which in the proper place and soberly preached can bear good fruit; but what sort of fruit they have borne through being preached as they are now, you can see for yourself. In the same category I should place your dogma about universal necessity, even if it were true, and since in fact it is false and ungodly there is far greater danger in publishing it to the common herd.… But now you ask: ‘If it is right to discuss free choice, why do you denounce it? If it is wrong, why do you do it? Why do you publish your Diatribe?’ I answer, as I have done already, that you have forced us to discuss these things by taking the subject out of the universities and into the taverns; yet I discuss it without hesitation, as defending against your dogma a position which it is faithless to doubt and our sacred duty to preserve.… Judge for yourself what contribution is made to godliness by those who cry to the poor ignorant masses: ‘There is no free choice, our will does nothing, but God works in us both good and evil.’ I know some who have made a practice of describing before a mixed audience all sorts of passions, with quotations from Thomas and the rest, and even from Juvenal. These are not criticized for teaching falsehoods, but for teaching true things unprofitably because unseasonably. This certainly applies to your followers—for I have not been writing about you personally.”
Diatribe, EAS 4, 16: “And that there are three Gods, even if it might be said truly according to the rules of dialectic, could certainly not be spoken before the untutored multitude without great offence.” Cf. Hyperaspistes, EAS 4, 362 f.: “As to what I say about the three Gods, although Peter d’Ailly has the approval of theologians in thinking that this proposition is in some sense true, yet it would give great offence if stated publicly, though there is nothing offensive about it to the learned, who know that the word ‘God’ does not always mean the divine essence, but is sometimes used instead of ‘person.’ … For the learned understand that there are three Persons, to each one of whom the word ‘God’ is applicable …”
“Super aristas graderis.” This is a proverbial expression meaning “you walk over the ears of the corn.” Cf. the German Auf Eiern gehen, “to walk on eggs.”
I.e., the preaching that confession and satisfaction are not obligatory.
Diatribe, EAS 4, 16: “Even if I were convinced, as I am not, that this confession which we now use was neither instituted by Christ nor could be instituted by men, and ought therefore not to be demanded of anyone, and that satisfaction for sins committed was likewise not required, even so I should be afraid to publish this opinion, because I see so many mortals wonderfully prone to wrongdoing, whom at present the necessity of confessing either restrains altogether or at least moderates.” Erasmus discusses the same subject in Hyperaspistes, EAS 4, 364 f.: “As regards the passage on confession and satisfaction, which I brought in only as an example … I am not so afraid of the Pope that if I were convinced we ought to reject confession I would not dare to state my view among the learned, and whisper it to anxious friends, and even do what I could to get confession abolished without serious disturbance by the authority of the princes. As it is, I retain it, and preach only what I practise, not only because the Roman pontiff has prescribed it, but much more because the Christian people has accepted it. For as I do not approve of all established practices, so I am far from the mind of those who think that all human ordinances or customs should be rejected—only to be succeeded by others, perhaps harsher than those of which the common people are now complaining. Yet I see that even among those who insist on confession, the wiser ones dare not pronounce as to whether it was instituted by Christ or gathered from Holy Scripture or developed out of a general regulation of the Church. Is this ‘walking delicately,’ when one does not pronounce on matters concerning which the Church has not yet spoken with a clear voice? I am not here accusing either you or yours, but am simply stating how my own mind works."
Diatribe, EAS 4, 16: “There are some bodily diseases which it is a lesser evil to endure than to cure, as for example, if one had to bathe in the warm blood of slaughtered infants in order to get rid of leprosy. There are likewise some errors that it would do less harm to conceal than to uproot. Paul knew the difference between what is lawful and what is expedient. It is lawful to speak the truth, but it is not expedient to do this to everyone at all times and in all circumstances.”
Literally: “the peace and tranquility of the flesh.”
Erasmus’ reply to this is given in Hyperaspistes, EAS 4, 368 f.: “All I want to know from you is this: Suppose there has been on the part of the princes a great deal of tyranny toward the peasants-though I am not sure there has—would it be better for the peasants to put up with the injustice of their masters, or to experiment with these uprisings, in which so many thousands have perished, and through which their miseries are so far from ended that their yoke has been doubled and made harsher than ever? I say these things not so much to accuse your people as to excuse myself, who am frequently upbraided for not having sharpened my pen against the vices of the Popes and Bishops.… If you know that these tumults are of divine origin, I do not, nor am I going to be either their instigator or an accessory to them; yet I never cease beseeching Christ that whatever their origin and whatever their outcome, the Almighty Artificer will turn them to his glory and the salvation of the Church.”
Cf. Virgil Aeneid vi. 471. Mount Marpesns on the island of Paros was famed for its marble quarries. Virgil uses this simile of Dido’s stony indifference to Aeneas in the underworld.
E.g., The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520), WA 6, 484 ff.; LW 36, 11 ff.; The Freedom of a Christian (1520), WA 7, 12 ff.; LW 31, 327 ff.; On Monastic Vows (1521), WA 8, 564 ff.; LW 44, 243 ff.; Avoiding the Doctrines of Men (1522), WA 10II 61 ff.; LW 35, 125 ff.
Rom. 2:11; Eph. 6:9; Col. 3:25.
Here Luther’s Latin forms a hexameter: “ante suum clauso componet tempore finem, ” which appears to be modeled on Virgil Aeneid i. 374: “ante diem clauso componet Vesper Olympo.”
Erasmus’ Exhortation to the Study of Christian Philosophy (Paraclesis) was published in 1516.
Erasmus retorts in the Hyperaspistes (EAS 4, 388): “Are you not ashamed, Luther, of a manifest lie? Has any income been given to me by the Pontiff? On the contrary, what Hadrian VI offered me, I refused. Has anyone given me a cardinal’s hat, or have I aspired to one, when I have refused with hands and feet even much inferior honors? But what were you to do? Fables of this sort are bandied about among believing brethren whose word cannot be questioned. How little you care what you say about anyone.…”
WA 18, 630–634.
EAS 4, 18, quoted p. 30, n. 26.
Erasmus does not say this, but “Who will be able to bring himself to love God?
Literally: “to the flesh.”
See p. 58, n. 66.
The following is Erasmus’ retort to Luther (Hyperaspistes, EAS 4, 408 f.: “I teach just the same as you, that a man should mistrust his own powers and submit himself wholly to the operation of divine grace, and should believe that God is just, even if from a human point of view he seems unjust, and merciful even if he seems cruel. Though that is not always true. For in Isaiah God challenges the people to come and reprove him if they can; and in Ezekiel 18 he contends as it were on an equal footing with the people, reproving their unrighteousness and proving his own righteousness. Nor does God always hide his mercy toward us in order that there may be room for faith, but he proves his mercy to us with many arguments. Nor does he hide his truth so that there may be more merit in believing him true, but he has declared himself true by all the prophetic oracies, images, miracles, and finally by performing through his Son and the Apostles what he had promised.… Hence no one will grant your exaggerated claim that if it could ‘by any means be comprehended how this God can be just who displays so much wrath and iniquity, there would be no need of faith.’ Instead, the goodness of God so nourishes our faith that from certain arguments which we comprehend with our heart and mind, we can believe also that which cannot be comprehended.”
WA 18, 634–639.
This simile of the beast and its riders was not Luther’s own invention. He appears to have derived it from the pseudoAugustinian Hypomnesticon III. xi.20, where it is connected, as Luther connects it, with Ps. 73:22 f. It had, however, antecedents as far back as Origen, and it was widely used among the Schoolmen (cf. Harry J. McSorley, Luther: Right or Wrong? pp. 335 ff.). Yet Luther does not use it quite in the traditional way, for he equates the beast simply with the will (instead of free will), and makes the riders God and Satan (instead of sin and grace), and gives the beast no option as to which rider it shall have. Erasmus comments on this in Hyperaspistes, EAS 4, 412: “You set out to prove universal necessity to us by assuming, as if you had a perfect right to do so, something you have not yet demonstrated, namely, that we perform no work, but God alone works in us both good and evil, though then you go on to speak of two Gods, who sit astride our will by turns and guide it wherever they will.… What you say of man in captivity to sin and his inability to turn his will toward the good by his own powers without a breath of grace, that we also confess, especially if you are thinking of an effective turning. But I cannot agree with you when you say that a man in whom grace is at work cannot turn himself away from grace, as if one who stood in the sunshine could not shut his eyes. Otherwise, why does Paul reprove those who were once enlightened, had tasted the heavenly gift, and been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, yet have now fallen into wickedness [cf. Heb. 6:4 f.]? Nor does the simile prove that our will does absolutely nothing at all. For while the beast is controlled by its rider, yet in obeying him it does something together with him. And sometimes it strains against the bridle, kicks, bucks, and even once in a while throws its rider down—not that God can be thrown down, but when he is offended by our disobedience he leaves us to our own desires.”
Diatribe, EAS 4, 42: “Just as in those who lack grace (I mean special grace) reason has been obscured but not extinguished, so it is probable that also in them the power of the will has not been completely extinguished, but it has been rendered ineffective as regards the good.”
For Erasmus’ definition of free choice, see pp. 102 f., where Luther quotes it. The following is Erasmus’ reply to Luther’s criticism here (Hyperaspistes, EAS 4, 415 f.): “When I speak of free choice doing anything good, I connect it with grace, which as long as it obeys it is felicitously acted upon and acts, but when it resists it deserves to be deserted by grace, and when it is deserted it does nothing but evil, as you say here. It is therefore something that does something, and there is no contradiction in terms. For just as we distinguish free men from slaves even when they are equally prisoners of war, not because they are at the time their own masters, but because they were born free and, if they could escape from the hands of their conquerors, would return to their natural freedom; so man was created to have free choice, which the tyrant Satan has taken captive, but grace has restored and increases. Nor do I reject the Scholastic distinction regarding the natural quality in man through which he is capable of being taken hold of by the Spirit, provided you add that he is also capable of acting along with the acting Spirit. If, as you say, this quality is not in animals, but only in men and angels, let us thank God that in this he has separated us from the animals and put us on a level with the angels. You see, there is no contradiction in terms here.… Now look how you press me: ‘It effects nothing without grace, therefore it does nothing at all with grace.’ Is this the trap in which you catch me? Does ‘ineffective’ mean to the Latins ‘not doing anything at all’? Have ‘to do’ and ‘to effect’ one and the same meaning? We call a medicine effective, not because it in some way moves the body, but because it does what it is intended to do; or we call it ineffective, not because it has done nothing in the body, but because it has not proved equal to expelling the disease. One commonly hears people complaining that although they have done everything, it has not had the effect they desired. So this is no new use of the word, but one familiar from ancient times till now. ‘What,’ you ask, ‘is an ineffective power but simply no power at all?’ Thus while teaching us to speak Latin, you loftily deny by the way you argue, that in Latin a person who is engaged in a useless activity can be said to be ‘doing nothing,’ because that suits your purpose.… Has a boy who is tugging at a big boat no strength because he cannot move the boat without the help of someone more robust? Of course he has some strength, though it is ineffective except as pulling together with a robuster person, because he cannot effect what he wishes by himself.”
I.e., the use of a word in a sense opposite to its proper meaning.
WA 18, 638 f.
Diatribe, EAS 4, 18 f.
Diatribe, EAS 4, 20: “Holy Scripture has its own language, adapted to our understanding. There God is angry, grieves, is indignant, rages, threatens, hates, and again has mercy, repents, changes his mind; not that such changes take place in the nature of God, but that to speak thus is suited to our weakness and dullness.”
Literally: “looking for a knot in a bulrush,” i.e., seeking difficulties where there are none; a proverbial expression.
WA 18, 639–649.
English theologian and reformer (1324–84); declared heretical by the Council of Constance, 1415.
Italian Humanist (ca. 1406–57); famous for his exposure of the forged “Donation of Constantine” and attacks on other spurious documents. Erasmus had published a critical edition of his works in 1505.
Diatribe, EAS 4, 30: “The apostles were not believed unless miracles aroused faith in their teaching, but nowadays every Tom, Dick and Harry demands to be believed on the ground that he possesses the Spirit of the gospel. It was because the apostles shook off vipers, healed the sick, raised the dead, and imparted the gift of tongues by the laying on of hands, that they were finally believed, and then only with difficulty since they taught paradoxes. But now people put forward things that in common opinion are more than paradoxes, yet not one has so far arisen among them who could cure even a lame horse. And would that some of them, quite apart from miracles, could exhibit the simplicity and sincerity of an apostolic life, which for us more slowwitted ones would suffice instead of miracles.”
Virgil Aeneid iv. 333 f.
A proverbial expression; source unknown.
Cf. p. 72, n. 4.
The Stoics, from Zeno the founder of the school (at Athens, ca. 308 B.C.) to Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, portrayed as their ideal a man for whom virtue was the highest good, who was in strict control of his passions, indifferent to pleasure or pain, and unmoved by such things as family affection, or by any kind of calamity or misfortune.
Horace Epistles i. 18.15. I.e., arguing as to whether goat’s hair, used for weaving into cloth, can properly be called wool—an argument about the merest trifle.
Ibid., ii. 2.128 ff., where Horace depicts for us a man who suffered from the delusion that he was watching tragedies in an empty theatre. He was cured at great expense by his friends, and then upbraided them for robbing him of an illusion which gave him great pleasure while it lasted.
Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermo 20 in Canticles (MPL 183, 867).
Cf. Pliny the Elder Natural History vii. 83.2. “A frog from Seriphos” was proverbial for a silent person.
The grounds for Luther’s charges of uncertainty and inconsistency can be seen in the following passages from the Diatribe where Erasmus is discussing (1) the effects of the Fall on free choice, (2) different kinds of grace, and (3) the relation between grace and free choice. (1) Diatribe, EAS 4, 48–52: “What, then, is free choice worth in us after the Fall and before the reception of grace? On this point ancient and modern writers differ amazingly.… Pelagius taught that once the human will was liberated and healed by grace there was no need of new grace, but with the aid of free choice a man might attain to eternal salvation, though he owed his salvation to God, without whose grace his will was not effectively free to do good.… Those who have adopted the views of Scotus are still more inclined to favor free choice, for they believe it to have such power that even though a man has not received the grace which destroys sin, he can nonetheless by his own natural powers do what they call morally good works, which not ‘condignly’ but ‘congruously,’ merit that grace which makes them acceptable.… At the opposite extreme to these are those who argue that all such good works, even though morally good, were detestable to God no less than crimes like adultery and murder, since they did not proceed from faith and love toward God. This view seems too severe, especially as certain philosophers, having had some knowledge of God, may also have had a measure of faith and love toward God, seeing they did not act out of vainglory but from a love of virtue and goodness, which they teach should be embraced for no other reason than that it is good.… St. Augustine and his followers, considering how detrimental to true religion it is for a man to trust in his own powers, are more inclined to favor grace, which Paul everywhere stresses. Thus Augustine denies that man, subject to sin, can turn and amend his life or do anything that will bring him to salvation, unless he is divinely moved by the free gift of God to desire the things that lead to eternal life. This grace, which some call ‘prevenient,’ Augustine calls ‘operative’; for even faith, which is the gateway to salvation, is a gratuitous gift of God. Then when charity is added to this by a fuller gift of the Spirit, he calls it ‘cooperative’ grace, because it is always present to those who strive until they attain what they seek, though in such a way that while free choice and grace do the same work together, yet grace is the leader and not simply a companion in the work. Though some draw a distinction regarding this view, too, saying that if you consider the work according to its nature, its principal cause is the will of man, but if according to what is merited by it, the principal cause is grace. Moreover, although the faith which enables us to will the things that make for salvation, and the love which ensures that we do not will them in vain, are distinguished not so much in time as in nature, yet they both can be progressively increased in time.” (2) Diatribe, EAS 4, 52–56: “Since grace signifies a benefit freely given, we can distinguish three, or if you prefer, four graces. The first is implanted by nature and corrupted by sin, but as we have said, not extinguished, and some call it the influx of nature. This is common to all and remains even in those who persist in sin; for they are free to speak, be silent, sit down, stand up, help the poor, read Holy Scripture, listen to sermons—though these things in the opinion of some, in no way conduce to eternal life. There are, however, those who, bearing in mind the immeasurable goodness of God, say that man can so far make use of benefits of this kind, that he may be prepared for grace and call forth the mercy of God toward him. At the same time there are those who deny that this can be done without special grace. This grace that is common to all, just because it is common, is not usually called grace, though it really is.… The second is special grace, by which God in his mercy arouses sinner who is entirely without merit to repent, but does not yet infuse that supreme grace which abolishes sin and makes a man pleasing to God. Thus the sinner, assisted by this second grace, which we have called ‘operative,’ becomes displeased with himself, and although he has not yet got rid of his inclination to sin, yet by alms, prayers, attention to sacred studies, hearing sermons, asking godly men to pray for him, and other morally good deeds (as they call them), he behaves as a candidate for the highest grace. Now they reckon that what we are here calling the second grace is by the goodness of God not denied to any man, because the divine benevolence supplies to each individual in this life sufficient opportunities for repentance, provided he uses such choice as he still possesses to respond as best he may to the divine resources which invite but do not compel him to better things. And here they think it is for us to decide whether we will apply our will to grace or turn away from it, just as we are able to open our eyes to a light shining on them, or to close them to it. Since, however, the immeasurable love of God toward the human race does not suffer man to be disappointed even of that grace which is called ‘pleasing’ or ‘making acceptable,’ if he strives after it with all his powers, it follows that while no sinner ought to feel secure, yet none need despair, and it also follows that no one perishes but by his own fault. There is thus a natural grace, a stimulating grace (albeit imperfect), a grace which renders the will effective, which we have called ‘cooperative,’ and which carries forward what has been begun, and a grace which leads to the final goal. These last three are considered to be one and the same grace, although from the ways they operate in us they are called by different names. The first stimulates, the second promotes, the third consummates.” (3) Diatribe, EAS 4, 56–58: “Those who at the opposite extreme to Pelagius attribute most to grace and hardly anything to free choice, still do not entirely remove it. They deny that a man can will good without special grace; they deny that he can begin, that he can make progress, and that he can reach his goal, without the principal and perpetual aid of divine grace. This view seems probable enough, because it leaves man to desire and endeavor, yet does not leave him with anything to ascribe to his own powers. But harder is the opinion of those who contend that free choice is of no avail save for sinning, and that grace alone does any good work in us, not by or with free choice, but in free choice, so that our will does nothing more than wax does when in the hands of the artist it is molded into whatever shape he pleases.… Hardest of all seems the view of those who say that free choice is a mere empty name, and that it neither is nor ever was of any avail either in the angels or in Adam or in us, whether before or after the reception of grace, but it is God who works evil as well as good in us, and everything that happens comes about by sheer necessity. Hence my dispute will be concerned with these last two positions.”
Literally: “after the years of Plato.” Plato, Republic viii. 546C, refers in highly enigmatic terms to a supposed “nuptial number” governing the period of human gestation, and derives from the phenomenon of premature birth the gradual declension of the human race during a period of (3 × 4 × 5)4 years, i.e., 12,960,000 years, or the duration of a Great Year in the life of the universe. Like Pythagoras, Plato was obsessed by the theory of numbers, which he here uses in arguing that the perfect city did once in fact exist long ago and will exist again. The enigmatic nature of his argument appears to have become proverbial, and in Cicero Epistola ad Atticum vii. 13B .5, we find the phrase “more obscure than Plato’s number.” Luther, however, seems to have had in mind not so much the obscurity as the magnitude of the number, that is, the length of the Great Year at the end of which the perfect city returns.
“Publicani.” The use of this word instead of publici (“public figures”) contains an obvious reference to the “publicans” (taxcollectors) of the New Testament, with the implication perhaps that just as these public figures were often notorious for their exactions, so the supporters of free choice not only enjoy publicity, but deserve notoriety on account of the abuses (such as the traffic in indulgences ) which their teaching allows.
Cf. Ovid Metamorphoses i. 318 ff. Deucalion, son of Prometheus, is the Noah of Greek mythology, who survived the Flood and became the ancestor of the Hellenes.
See p. 72, n. 6.
See p. 17, n. 10.
The Etruscan god of the changing year, who could assume any shape he wished; cf. Horace Satires ii. 7.14.
Cato Disticha moralis i. The Disticha is a collection of edifying moral couplets attributed to one Dionysius Cato, who lived at the close of the third century A.D., and who was obviously aiming at copybook fame in schools. Luther’s quotation is possibly from a memory of his own schooldays.
Diatribe, EAS 4, 26: “The authority of Scripture is not here in dispute. Both sides acknowledge and venerate the same Scripture. Our quarrel is about the meaning of Scripture. And if in interpreting it any weight is to be given to ingenuity and learning, what minds are sharper and more perceptive than those of the Greeks? Who are more versed in Holy Scripture? Nor have the Latins been lacking in skill or in familiarity with the Scriptures, and if they were less naturally gifted than the Greeks, they were certainly able by building on their achievements to equal the industry of the Greeks.”
Or: “weakness of the flesh.”
Or: “the mind of their flesh.”
Letter 22, To Eustochium, 19 (MPL 22, 405).
John Faber (1478–1541), German theologian, Vicar General of the Bishop of Constance and later himself Bishop of Vienna, wrote against Luther in 1522 and 1524. From the title of his second book, Malleus in haeresin Lutheranam, he became known as “the hammer of the heretics.” It is probably this book to which Luther refers here; Faber himself may have regarded it as his “pearl.”
WA 18, 649–652.
Diatribe, EAS 4, 32 f.
Cf. Virgil Aeneid vi. 126–129, where the Sybil warns Aeneas about the perils of visiting the underworld: “Easy is the descent to Avernus … but to recall thy steps and pass out to the upper air, this is the task, this is the toil!”
The followers of Arius (d.336), presbyter of Alexandria, excommunicated in 318 for denying the full divinity of Christ. His teaching, variously modified, won widespread acceptance and had the support of several emperors before the orthodox doctrine, formulated at the Council of Nicaea in 325, finally prevailed.
“Pallia.” The pallium is an ecclesiastical vestment bestowed by the pope on metropolitans, primates, and archbishops as a symbol of the jurisdiction delegated to them by the Holy See. It was much coveted, and the payments made to obtain it were an important source of papal revenue.
Literally: “inquisitors of heretical depravity”; a title bestowed by the pope in the early part of the thirteenth century on special agents for the extirpation of heresy. This marked a significant stage in the development of antiheretical legislation which, beginning in the time of Theodosius I, reached its climax of horror in the Spanish Inquisition.
WA 18, 652–659.
Diatribe, EAS 4, 28 f.
Diatribe, EAS 4, 26. Quoted above, p. 83, n. 21.
The reference is to the Schwärmer, or “Enthusiasts,” as Luther called them, whom he had first encountered in the spring of 1522, and had more recently attacked in his book Against the Heavenly Prophets (1525; WA 18, 62 ff.; LW 40, 73 ff.).
Cf. p. 28.
Erasmus says: “by the sign (indicio) of the Spirit. Luther reads this as “by the judgment (iudicio)” of the spirit.
Deut. 17:11 (Vulgate).
I.e., by contrast with the internal clarity mentioned earlier (p. 90) which meant the illumination of the Spirit is the individual soul.
“Lucidum, ” rendered as “lightsome” in the Douay Version (Ps. 18:9).
The correct reference is Mal. 2:7.
Philippians is obviously meant.
Cf. I Tim. 4:7; II Tim. 2:14; Titus 3:9.
City of God (De civitate dei), V, 26 (MPL 41, 174).
John Huss, De ecclesia, chap. 7
In the preface to his Institutio oratoria.
See p. 86, n. 30.
“Aliquando.” An alternative reading is aliquanto, “a little.”
WA 18, 659–661.
 51 Diatribe means “collation” or “discourse”; Apophasis means “declaration.”
 52 Diatribe, EAS 4, 22.
 53 For Lucian, see p. 24, n. 10.
Part 1 and 2 will be followed by parts 3-4 at a later date.