Desiderius Erasmus’ Dispute with Martin Luther: Are We Free?

Erasmus is one of the best-known thinkers of the Renaissance, and his dispute with Martin Luther over the concept of free will is a famous philosophical and theological conundrum.

Mar 2, 2023By Rachel Ashcroft, MSc Comparative Literature, PhD Renaissance Philosophy
erasmus martin luther what makes us free people


Desiderius Erasmus is widely considered to be one of the most influential thinkers of the Renaissance. He was a prolific writer during his lifetime, producing educational handbooks, dialogues, religious treatises and writing letters to many of the period’s most prominent figures. Erasmus also traveled widely around Europe, and is perhaps best known for his reluctance to support either side of the Reformation.


As we will see, for many years Erasmus tried to thread a middle ground between the radical reforms advocated by Martin Luther and the highly conservative Catholic Church. He was initially sympathetic to Luther’s criticism of the Pope and Roman Catholicism, and could see the need for reform. However, Erasmus believed the best way to change things was through championing the importance of education and prayer. He rejected the more radical solutions proposed by Luther.


As the Reformation swept through Europe, Erasmus felt under pressure to openly take a side. After all, many countries and city states were becoming divided along religious lines and suffering from bloody civil wars. His friends and associates wanted to know where he stood on the biggest issue to affect Europe in centuries. In 1524, Erasmus published De Libero Animo or “On Free Will” which criticized Luther’s belief that humans are corrupt sinners whose fate is predestined. This book sparked one of the most famous intellectual disputes in European history.


The Background to Erasmus’ Notion of Freedom: Free Will in the Renaissance

erasmus of rotterdam painting
Illustration of Desiderius Erasmus, via


The issue of free will had already been discussed and written about at length by many famous Christian thinkers before Erasmus, from St. Augustine to St. Thomas Aquinas. The full history of this particular aspect of theology is too long to cover here. However, it is possible to briefly summarize the general differences between Roman Catholic and Lutheran attitudes to free will.


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Roman Catholics generally believed enthusiastically in free will. Each individual has the freedom to accept God’s grace and turn towards a Christian life. Humans are also free to resist this process of course, although it might not turn out as well for them in the afterlife! The Council of Trent, held between 1545 and 1563, declared that free will “is not like a lifeless thing which remains purely passive” but has the ability to choose one path or another.


session Council of Trent Nicolo Dorigati
Opening session of the Council of Trent in 1545, by Nicolò Dorigati, 1711; in the Museo Diocesano Tridentino, Trento, Italy, via Encyclopedia Britannica


This view is extremely different to that of the Lutheran Church. Lutherans believe that only God can bestow salvation on human beings. After Adam’s fall into sin (also known as the Original Sin), all humans afterwards were corrupted with sin. Even though it’s possible for us to perform morally “good” deeds, everything we do and think is motivated by sinful thoughts and feelings. Therefore, when it comes to spiritual matters, humans have no freedom to choose salvation, since we inherited an innate desire to sin from our ancestor Adam.


Martin Luther and the Issue of Free Will

martin luther lucas cranach painting
Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach, 1528, via the Cranach Digital Archives


It was Luther’s account of free will that Erasmus eventually decided to dispute. A disagreement between the pair was always inevitable, since both were making waves throughout Europe with their theological writing. The two men were also extremely different. Luther communicated with the masses, and famously translated the Latin bible into German to make it more accessible. Erasmus, on the other hand, wrote in Latin for a traditional upper-class audience and preferred to see change come about from the top, rather than empowering ordinary laypeople.


Luther was much more of a ‘firebrand’ who believed he was fighting Satan at every turn. His writing was extremely powerful but less refined than that of Erasmus, who was communicating with a very different audience to his rival.


Despite these differences, Erasmus and Luther enjoyed a cordial relationship at first. Many of Luther’s followers wanted Erasmus to join their side. And even after Luther published his first criticism of free will, Erasmus purposely moved from Louvain in the Low Countries to Basel in 1522, just to avoid any request from Emperor Charles V to criticize Luther. However, after much prodding and poking from figures on both sides of the Reformation, Erasmus buckled and wrote his diatribe “On Free Will” in 1524.


The Skeptical Position in Erasmus’ “On Free Will”

adam eve stainedglass
Stained glass depiction of Adam and Eve just before the Fall


Erasmus’ book is classified as a diatribe or disquisition, in which he argues his points using classical skeptical methods. He weighs up various passages from the Bible and puts them alongside one another to show how difficult it is to come to a definite conclusion on the issue of free will. Clearly, despite caving to pressure from other people, Erasmus was unwilling to come up with a decisive verdict.


He points out that various parts of the Bible seem to support free will, particularly those places where God exhorts his people to practice virtue in order to be saved. Why would God say this if it wasn’t possible to actually do? Yet at the same time, there are also examples that could be interpreted as denying the existence of free will. What is the real answer?


Erasmus believed that even after the Fall of Adam, humans still retained the ability to either turn towards or away from God’s grace. For this reason he criticized the belief in divine necessity i.e. the notion that everything happens because of God’s will and not our own individual will.


Following the Skeptical tradition, Erasmus states that he is not prepared to pass judgment on this issue when the evidence could go either way. However, as a devout Christian he feels obliged to suspend this opinion in favor of the teachings of the Catholic Church (which promote the existence of free will). Rather than arguing strongly in favor of one or other position, Erasmus commits himself to neither and instead chooses to submit to the traditional interpretation of the Scripture given by the Catholic Church.


Luther’s Response to Erasmus and Further Conversations

martin luther 95 theses
Luther hammers his 95 theses to the door by Ferdinand Pauwels, 1872, via Wikimedia Commons


Unsurprisingly, the text received praise from high-profile individuals including Henry VIII, Charles V and the Pope. Although scholars now acknowledge that Erasmus was treading a fine line between the two points of view, his conclusion clearly fell in line with the ‘acceptable’ Catholic position rather than the emerging Reformers.


Unfortunately, Luther didn’t let the dispute go. He responded firmly to Erasmus’ argumentation with De servo arbitrio or “On the Bondage of the Will” in 1525. This text was four times longer than Erasmus’ diatribe and was a powerful, detailed argument denying the existence of free will. Luther believed that humans were only capable of sin and their salvation was God’s work alone.


Another key argument involved the fact that God is omniscient, omnipresent – “all-knowing”. If we believe this to be true, then of course humans cannot have their own will, because God wouldn’t know the outcome of their actions. We might live with the illusion of making our own choices, but if God foreknows something (and Luther believes he foreknows everything) then it will necessarily happen, whatever we might want the outcome to be.


“On the Bondage of the Will” was so direct in its criticism and argumentative in tone that Erasmus couldn’t ignore it. Between 1526 and 1527 the Dutch scholar produced two entire volumes in response to “On the Bondage of the Will” in which he denounced Luther as a divisive figure, out to destroy societal harmony. Erasmus also used this opportunity to attack Luther’s insistence that Scripture is crystal clear in its meaning and doesn’t need to be interpreted by anyone.


His Legacy in Later Centuries

desiderius erasmus portrait
Portrait of Desiderius Erasmus by Quinten Metsys, 1517, via the Web Gallery of Art.


Despite Erasmus’ great intellect and his public responses to Luther’s attacks, in the case of this dispute Luther is generally considered to have ‘won’ the battle. Luther was a very different communicator, but he took full advantage of Erasmus’ hesitation to come down decisively on either side of the Reformation on this question.


However, in spite of this, Erasmus has often been praised for his dedication to Christian humanism throughout the dispute, particularly his mastery of classical and early church sources. Some academics have also argued that Erasmus was interested in the question of theodicy, i.e., trying to explain why a benevolent God would ‘allow’ human beings to commit evil acts.


Erasmus’ commitment to the idea of free will was also praised by philosophical circles, particularly from the Enlightenment onwards, including by individuals such as Leibniz and Kant. Erasmus distinguished between two particular spheres of human existence in his Antibarbari or “Against the Barbarians” from 1521. One of these spheres was based on pious faith (i.e. the moral sphere), while the other was rooted in critical academic thought (i.e. science). Erasmus argued that only humans were capable of wedding both of these things together.


Overall, Erasmus left a complex and enduring legacy. His works have often been roundly praised or criticized by certain groups depending on their religion and/or the region of Europe they come from. Today, Erasmus is beloved in his native Netherlands and has several high-profile universities and even a European student exchange scheme named in his honor. His dispute with Luther was just one of many exchanges he held with leading figures of the Renaissance, and despite his reluctance to commit fully to a definitive stance on free will, his legacy today is one of an educated and impressive man of letters.

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By Rachel AshcroftMSc Comparative Literature, PhD Renaissance PhilosophyRachel is a contributing writer and journalist with an academic background in European languages, literature and philosophy. She has an MA in French and Italian and an MSc in Comparative Literature from the University of Edinburgh. Rachel completed a PhD in Renaissance conceptions of time at Durham University. Now living back in Edinburgh, she regularly publishes articles and book reviews related to her specialty for a range of publications including The Economist.