Translated by E. Gordon Rupp
In 1524 and 1525, seven years after Martin Luther began the Reformation, Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466–1536) and Luther held a
“debate” in print entitled On Free Will and Salvation. Erasmus initiated this exchange in the form of an open letter in early 1524,
and Luther replied in 1525. Erasmus, despite his own criticisms of the excesses and corruption of many Roman Catholic
clergymen, felt that the Church was absolutely necessary. Humanity required guidance to avoid sin, Erasmus reasoned, and the
best guidance was the accumulated wisdom of the ages, as embodied in the teachings of the Church.
For Erasmus, any reform of the Church had to begin by examining its role in shaping individual morality. He felt this depended on
the individual Christian’s acceptance of free will (the notion that humans are free to choose their actions without divine coercion
or predestination). In On the Freedom of the Will, Erasmus argues that the Bible can be obscure, ambiguous, and seemingly
contradictory on the question of free will, but that on the whole the Bible and Church tradition favor free will.
Luther, conversely, felt that the nature of each individual was largely predetermined in the mind and plan of God, and that the
Church was only a teacher or guide, not a true molder of man’s nature. In his response of 1525, The Bondage of the Will, Luther
does more than argue for predestination. He also strongly asserts the clarity and sufficiency of the Bible (without commentary or
church doctrine) on this issue and on all other essential points of faith.
On the Freedom of the Will: A Diatribe or Discourse by Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam
Erasmus Acknowledges His Limitations and States
His Point of View
In the Name of Jesus.
Among the difficulties, of which not a few crop up in Holy Scripture, there is hardly a more tangled labyrinth than that of
“free choice,” for it is a subject that has long exercised the minds of philosophers, and also of theologians old and new, in a
striking degree, though in my opinion and more labor than fruit.
More recently, however, it has been revived by Carlstadt and Eck, in a fairly moderate debate, and now it has been more
violently stirred up by Martin Luther, who has put out an Assertion about “free choice” and although he has already been answered
by more than one writer, it seemed good to my friends that I should try my hand and see whether, as a result of our little set-to, the
truth might be made more plain.
Here I know there will be those who will forthwith stop their ears, crying out, “The rivers run backward” — dare Erasmus
attack Luther, like the fly the elephant? To appease them, if I may be allowed to ask for a little quiet, I need say no more by way of
preface than what is the fact, that I have never sworn allegiance to the words of Luther. So that it should not seem unbecoming to
anybody if at any point I differ publicly from him, as a man surely may differ from another man, nor should it seem a criminal
offense to call in question any doctrine of his, still less it one engages in a temperate disputation with him for the purpose of
Certainly I do not consider Luther himself would be indignant if anybody should find occasion to differ from him, since he
permits himself to call in question the decrees, not only of all the doctors of the Church, but of all the schools, councils, and popes;
and since he acknowledges this plainly and openly, it ought not to be counted by his friends as cheating if I take a leaf out of his
Furthermore, just in case anyone should mistake this for a regular gladiatorial combat, I shall confine my controversy strictly
to this one doctrine, with no other object than to make the truth more plain by throwing together Scriptural texts and arguments, a
method of investigation that has always been considered most proper for scholars.
So let us pursue the matter without recrimination, because this is more fitting for Christian men, and because in this way the
truth, which is so often lost amid too much wrangling, may be more surely perceived.
To be sure, I know that I was not built for wrestling matches: there is surely nobody less practiced in this kind of thing than
I, who have always had an inner temperamental horror of fighting, and who have always preferred to sport in the wider plains of
the Muses rather than to brandish a sword in a hand-to-hand fight.
His Dislike of Assertions
And, in fact, so far am I from delighting in “assertions” that I would readily take refuge in the opinion of the Skeptics,
wherever this is allowed by the inviolable authority of the Holy Scriptures and by the decrees of the Church, to which I
everywhere willingly submit my personal feelings, whether I grasp what it prescribes or not.
Moreover, I prefer this disposition of mine to that with which I see some people endowed who are so uncontrollably
attached to their own opinion that they cannot bear anything which dissents from it; but they twist whatever they read in the
Scriptures into an assertion of an opinion which they have embraced once for all. They are like young men who love a girl so
immoderately that they imagine they see their beloved wherever they turn, or, a much better example, like two combatants who, in
the heat of a quarrel, turn whatever is at hand into a missile, whether it be a jug or a dish. I ask you, what sort of sincere judgment
can there be when people behave in this way? Who will learn anything fruitful from this sort of discussion -–beyond the fact that
each leaves the encounter bespattered with the other’s filth? There will always be many such, whom the apostle Peter describes as
“ignorant and unstable who twist the Scriptures to their own destruction.”
As far as I am concerned, I admit that many different views about free choice have been handed down from the ancients
about which I have, as yet, no fixed conviction, except that I think there to be a certain power of free choice. For I have read the
Assertion of Martin Luther, and read it without prejudice, except that I have assumed a certain favor toward him, as an investigator
may toward an arraigned prisoner. And yet, although he expounds his case in all its aspects with great ingenuity and fervor of
spirit, I must say, quite frankly, that he has not persuaded me.
If anybody ascribes this to my slowness or inexperience, I shall not quarrel with him, provided they allow us slower ones the
privilege of learning by meeting those who have received the gift of God in fuller measure, especially since Luther attributes very
little importance to scholarship, and most of all to the Spirit, who is wont to instill into the more humble what he denies to the
wise. So much for those who shout so loudly that Luther has more learning in his little finger than Erasmus in his whole body, a
view that I shall certainly not attempt to refute here. I simply ask from such, however ill-disposed they may be, that if I grant to
Luther in this Disputation that he be not weighed down by the prejudgments of doctors, councils, universities, popes, and of the
emperor, they will not damage my cause by mere snap judgments.
For even though I believe myself to have mastered Luther’s argument, yet I might well be mistaken, and for that reason I
play the debater, not the judge; the inquirer, not the dogmatist: ready to learn from anyone if anything truer or more scholarly can
be brought. Yet I would willingly persuade the man in the street that in this kind of discussion it is better not to enforce contentions
which may the sooner harm Christian concord than advance true religion.
The Obscurity of Scripture
For there are some secret places in the Holy Scriptures into which God has not wished us to penetrate more deeply and, if we
try to do so, then the deeper we go, the darker and darker it becomes, by which means we are led to acknowledge the unsearchable
majesty of the divine wisdom, and the weakness of the human mind.
It is like the cavern near Corycos of which Pomponius Mela tells, which begins by attracting the drawing the visitor to itself
by its pleasing aspect, and then as one goes deeper, a certain horror and majesty of the divine presence that inhabits the place
makes one draw back. So when we come to such a place, my view is that the wiser and more reverent course is to cry with St.
Paul: “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his
ways!” and with Isaiah: “Who has heard the Spirit of the Lord, or what counselor has instructed him?” rather than to define what
passes the measure of the human mind. Many things are reserved for that time when we shall no longer see through a glass darkly
or in a riddle, but in which we shall contemplate the glory of the Lord when his face shall be revealed.
Therefore, in my judgment on this matter of free choice, having learned what is needful to know about this, if we are in the
path of true religion, let us go on swiftly to better things, forgetful of the things which are behind, or if we are entangled in sins, let
us strive with all our might and have recourse to the remedy of penitence that by all means we may entreat the mercy of the Lord
without which no human will or endeavor is effective; and what is evil in us, let us impute to ourselves, and what is good, let us
ascribe wholly to divine benevolence, to which we owe salvation, and that no harm can come to us from a God who is by nature
just, even if some things happen that seem to us amiss, for none ought to despair of the pardon of a God who is by nature most
merciful. This, I say, was in my judgment sufficient for Christian godliness, nor should we through irreverent inquisitiveness rush
into those things which are hidden, not to say superfluous: 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. And then there are certain things of which God has willed us to be completely ignorant — such as the hour of
death or the Day of Judgment: “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority,” Acts
1(:7); and Mark 13(:32): “But of that day of that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the
Father.” There are some things which God has willed that we should contemplate, as we venerate himself, in mystic silence; and,
moreover, there are many passages in the sacred volumes about which many commentators have made guesses, but no one has
finally cleared up their obscurity: as the distinction between the divine persons, the conjunction of the divine and human nature in
Christ, the unforgivable sin; yet there are other things which God has willed to be most plainly evident, and such are the precepts
for the good life. This is the Word of God, which is not to be bought in the highest heaven, nor in distant lands overseas, but it is
close at hand, in our mouth and in our heart. These truths must be learned by all, but the rest are more properly committed to God,
and it is more religious to worship them, being unknown, than to discuss them, being insoluble. How many questions, or rather
squabbles, have arisen over the distinction of persons, the mode of generation, the distinction between filiation and procession;
what a fuss has been raised in the world by the wrangle about the conception of the virgin as Theotokos! I ask what profit has there
been so far from these laborious inquiries, except that with the loss of harmony we love one another the less, while seeking to be
wiser than we need.
Some Truths Are Not for Common Ears
Moreover, some things there 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. Perhaps it is true, as the Sophists are given to blather, that God, according to his own nature,
is not less present in the hole of a beetle (I will not use the more vulgar expression that they are not ashamed to use) than in
heaven, and yet this would be unprofitably discussed before the common herd. And that there are three Gods might be said truly
according to the rules of dialectic, but would certainly not be spoken before the untutored multitude without great scandal. Even if
I were convinced, which is not the case, that this confession which we now use was neither instituted by Christ nor could have
been founded by men, and for this reason ought not to be required of any, and further that no satisfaction should be demanded for
offenses, yet I should fear to publish this opinion because I see so many mortals who are wonderfully prone to offenses, whom the
necessity of confessing either restrains altogether or at least moderates. There are some bodily diseases that are less evil to bear
than their removal, as though a man were to bathe in a warm blood of murdered babes to avoid leprosy, so there are some errors
that it would cause less damage to conceal than to uproot. Paul knew the difference between what things are lawful and what are
expedient. It is lawful to speak the truth; it is not expedient to speak the truth to everybody at every time and in every way. If I
were convinced that at a certain council some wrong decision or definition had been made, I should have the right to proclaim the
truth, but it would not be expedient, lest wicked men be given a handle to scorn the authority of the Fathers, even in those
decisions which they have taken in a godly and devout spirit. I would rather say that they took a decision that seemed reasonable
from the point of view of their own times which present needs suggest should be repealed.
The Dangers Inherent in Luther’s Teachings
Let us, therefore, suppose that there is some truth in the doctrine which Wyclif taught and Luther asserted, that whatever is
done by us is done not by free choice but by sheer necessity. What could be more useless than to publish this paradox to the world?
Again, suppose for a moment that it were true in a certain sense, as Augustine says somewhere, that “God works in us good and
evil, and rewards his own good works in us, and punishes his evil works in us”; what a window to impiety would the public
avowal of such an opinion open to countless mortals! Especially in view of the slowness of mind of mortal men, their sloth, their
malice, and their incurable propensity toward all manner of evil. What weakling will be able to bear the endless and wearisome
warfare against his flesh? What evildoer will take pains to correct his life? Who will be able to bring himself to love God with all
his heart when He created hell seething with eternal torments in order to punish his own misdeeds in his victims as though he took
delight in human torments? For that is how most people will interpret them. For the most part, men are by nature dull-witted and
sensual, prone to unbelief, inclined to evil, with a bent to blasphemy, so that there is no need to add fuel to the furnace. And so
Paul, as a wise dispenser of the Divine Word, often brings clarity to bear, and prefers to follow that which is fitting for one’s
neighbors rather than the letter of the law: and possesses a wisdom that he speaks among the perfect, but amongst the weak he
reckons to know nothing, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified. 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 infirmity and slowness. The same prudence I
consider befits those who undertake the task of interpreting the Divine Word. Some things for this reason are harmful because they
are not expedient, as wine for a fevered patient. Similarly, such matters might allowably have been treated in discussion by the
learned world, or even in the theological schools, although I should not think even this to be expedient save the restraint; on the
other hand, to debate such fables before the gaze of a mixed multitude seems to me to be not merely useless but even pernicious.
I should, therefore, prefer men to be persuaded not to waste their time and talents in the labyrinths of this king, but to refute
or to affirm the views of Luther. My preface would rightly seem too verbose if it were not almost more relevant to the main issue
than the disputation itself.
INTRODUCTION TO THE DISPUTATION
Luther is Opposed Not Only by Scripture but Also by Weighty
Authority of the Church Fathers
Now, since Luther does not acknowledge the authority of any writer, of however distinguished a reputation, but only listens
to the canonical Scriptures, how gladly do I welcome this abridgment of labor, for innumerable Greek and Latin writers treat of
free choice, either as a theme or incidentally, so that it would be a great labor to collect out of them what each one has to say either
for or against free choice, and to explain the several meanings of each individual opinion, or to resolve or approve their arguments
— a tedious and long-winded affair, and as regards Luther and his friends, quite useless, especially as they not only disagree
among themselves, but often contradict their own doctrine.
Yet in the meantime let the reader be admonished that if we shall seem to give equal weight with Luther to the testimonies
and solid arguments of Holy Scripture, he should also bear constantly in mind so numerous a body of most learned men who have
found approval in so many centuries down to our own day, whom not only their skill in divine studies but also godliness of life
commend. For some of them gave testimony with their blood to that doctrine of Christ which they defend with their writings; such
among the Greeks were Origen, Basil, Chrysostom, Cyril, John of Damascus, Theophylact; among the Latin Fathers, Tertullian,
Cyprian, Arnobius, Hilary, Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, to say nothing meanwhile of Thomas, Scotus, Durandus, Capreolus,
Gabriel, Aegidius, Gregory, Alexander, the skill and force of whose dialectic, in my opinion, no one can afford to despise, not to
mention the authority of so many universities, councils, and supreme pontiffs.
From the time of the apostles down to the present day, no writer has yet emerged who has totally taken away the power of
freedom of choice, save only Manichaeus and John Wyclif. For the authority of Laurentius Valla, who comes nearest to agreement
with them, has not much weight among theologians. The doctrine of Manichaeus, indeed, though it has long been exploded and
repudiated by common consent of the whole world, yet I am inclined to think less useless to piety than that of Wyclif. For
Manichaeus ascribes good and bad works to two natures in man in such a way that we owe good works to God in consequence of
our condition, and yet against the power of darkness he leaves cause for imploring the aid of the Creator, that with this aid we may
sin more lightly, and more easily do good works. Wyclif, however, ascribes all things to sheer necessity, and what room does he
leave either for our prayers or for our endeavors?
So to return to my first theme, if the reader shall see that my own argument meets the other side with equal weapons, then let
him also 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, so many bishops and
popes — or to trust instead the private judgment of this or that individual.
Not that, as in human assemblies, I would measure my opinion by the number of votes or the status of the speakers. I know
how frequently it happens that the greater part overcomes the better: I know those are not always the best things that are approved
by the majority. I know that nothing ever does harm to the investigation of truth, which is added to the industry of one’s
predecessors. I confess that it is right that the sole authority of Holy Scripture should outweigh all the votes of all mortal men. But
the authority of the Scripture is not here in dispute. The same Scriptures are acknowledged and venerated by either side. Our battle
is about the meaning of Scripture.
But if in this matter of interpretation some weight is to be given to learning, what minds are sharper and more perceptive
than those of the Greeks? Who are more versed in Holy Scripture? Nor among the Latins was insight lacking or skill in
interpreting Scripture, for if they have yielded pride of place to the Greeks in natural felicity, they have surely been able, building
on their achievements, to equal the industry of the Greeks. And if in this point of judgment we have regard rather to holiness of life
than to learning, you will see the caliber of the champions in the party that defends free choice; but, as the lawyers say,
comparisons are odious! For I should not like to have to compare the heralds of this new gospel with these veterans.
How Can Inspiration and Authority Be Tested?
I hear the objection, What need is there of an interpreter when the Scripture itself is crystal clear? But if it is so clear, why
have so many outstanding men in so many centuries been blind, and in a matter of such importance, as these would appear? If
there is no obscurity in Scripture, what was the need of the work of prophecy in the days of the apostles? You say, “This was the
gift of the Spirit.” But I have the suspicion that just as the charasmata of healings and tongues ceased, this charisma ceased also.
And if it did not cease, then one must ask to whom it has been passed on. If to any Tom, Dick, or Harry, all interpretation is
uncertain. If to nobody, since even now so many obscurities puzzle learned men, no interpretation will be certain. If to those who
have succeeded to the place of the apostles, they will object that for many centuries many have succeeded to the office of the
apostles who have nothing of the apostolic Spirit. And yet of these men, other things being equal, it may be concluded as more
probable that God has infused his Spirit into those whom he has ordained, just as we may more probably believe grace to be given
to the baptized than to the unbaptized. But let us grant, as indeed we must, that it is possible that the Spirit might reveal to a single
humble and unlearned man what has not revealed to the wise and prudent, seeing that Christ thanked his Father for this, that what
he had concealed from the wise and prudent, namely, scribes and Pharisees and philosophers, he had revealed to babes, that is, to
the simple and foolish according to this world. And perhaps such a fool was Dominic, such was Francis, if it had been permitted to
them each to follow his own spirit. But if Paul in his time, in which the gift of the Spirit was in full force, orders spirits to be tested
whether they be of God, what ought to be done in this carnal age? How, then, shall we prove the Spirit? By learning? On both
sides there are scholars. By holiness of life? On both sides are sinners. On the other hand, there is a whole choir of saints who
support free choice. True, they say, but these are only men. But I am now comparing men with men, not men with God. I hear you
say, “What has a multitude to do with the meaning of the Spirit?” I reply, “What have a handful?” You say, “What has a miter to
do with the understanding of Holy Scripture?” I reply, “What has a sack-cloth or a cowl?” You say, “What has the knowledge of
philosophy to do with the knowledge of sacred letters?” I reply, “What has ignorance?” You say, “What has an assembled synod to
do with the understanding of Scripture, in which it may be that there is nobody who has the Spirit?” I reply, “What, then, of private
conventicles of the few, of whom it is much more likely that none has the Spirit?” Paul cries, “Do you wish for proof of Christ
who dwells in me?” (II Cor. 13:3). The apostles were not believed unless miracles created belief in their doctrine. Now every Tom,
Dick and Harry claims credence who testifies that he has the Spirit of the gospel.
Seeing that the apostles shook off vipers, healed the sick, raised the dead, and by laying on of hands bestowed the gift of
tongues, they were at length believed, but they were scarcely believed for teaching paradoxes! But now these people bring forth
what common opinion accounts as more than paradoxes, yet not one of them has so far appeared who can cure even a lame horse!
And miracles apart, would that they could equal the sincerity and simplicity of the apostolic character which for us slow of heart
would suffice instead of miracles.
I do not intend this to refer specifically to Luther, whom I do not know personally, and from whose writings I get a mixed
impression. I say it rather of certain others better known to me who, if there is any controversy concerning the meaning of the
Scriptures, when we bring forward the authority of the Early Fathers, chant at once, “Ah! but they were only men.” And if you ask
them by what argument the true interpretation of Scripture may be known, since both sides are men, they reply, “By the sign of the
Spirit.” If you ask why the Spirit should rather be absent from those who have illuminated the world by their published miracles
than from themselves, they reply as though for thirteen hundred years there had been no gospel in the world. If you seek of them a
life worthy of the Spirit, they reply that they are just by faith, not by works. If you look in vain for miracles, they say that the age
of miracles is past, and that there is no need of them now that we have so much light in the Scriptures. And if you deny the
Scriptures to be clear in such a point about which so many great men have stumbled in darkness, the argument returns full circle.
Moreover, if we grant that he who has the Spirit is sure of the meaning of the Scriptures, how can I be certain of what he
finds to be true for himself? What am I to do when many bring diverse interpretations, about which each swears he has the Holy
Spirit? And since the Spirit does not furnish the whole truth to anyone, even he who has the Spirit may be mistaken or deceived in
some single point. So much for those who so easily reject the interpretation of the Fathers in Holy Scripture and oppose their views
to ours as if delivered by an oracle. Finally, even supposing that the Spirit of Christ could have allowed his people to err in trivial
matters on which the salvation of men does not greatly depend, how can it be believed that for more than thirteen hundred years he
would have concealed the error in his Church and not have found anybody among so many saintly men worthy to be inspired with
the knowledge of what these people claim to be the chief doctrine of the whole gospel?
Truly — to conclude this argument — what such people choose to claim for themselves is their own affair. I claim for
myself neither learning nor holiness, nor do I trust in my own spirit. I shall merely put forward with simple diligence those
considerations which move my mind. If anybody shall try to teach me better, I will not knowingly withstand the truth. If they
prefer to rail at one who treats them with courtesy and without invective, rather discoursing than disputing, who will not find them
lacking in that spirit of the gospel which is always on their lips? Paul cries, “As for the man who is weak in faith, support him”
(Rom. 14:1). And Christ did not extinguish the smoking flax, while Peter the apostle says, “Always be prepared to make a defense
to all who call you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (I Peter 3:15). So that if they
reply that Erasmus is an old vessel, and is not capable of the new wine of the Spirit which they offer to the world: if they really rate
themselves so highly, let them at least treat us as Christ treated Nicodemus and the apostle Gamaliel. Although Nicodemus was
ignorant, the lord did not repulse him, because he desired to learn; and the disciples did not reject Gamaliel because he would
suspend his judgment until the outcome of the matter should reveal by what spirit it had been done.
PART I. SCRIPTURE PASSAGES THAT SUPPORT FREE CHOICE
I have completed half of this book, in which, if I do but persuade the reader that it would be better not to contend too
superstitiously about things of this kind, particularly before the multitude, there is no need for the kind of argument for which I
now gird myself, in the hope that truth may everywhere prevail, by comparison of Scriptures, as fire comes from striking flint.
Definition of Free Choice and Discussion
of Ecclesiasticus 15:14-17
In the first place, it cannot be denied that there are many places in the Holy Scriptures which seem to set forth free choice.
On the other hand, others seem to take it wholly away. Yet it is clear that Scripture cannot be in conflict with itself, since the whole
proceeds from the same Spirit. First, then, we shall survey those passages which confirm our position; then we shall try to resolve
those which seem to make for the opposite point of view. By free choice in this place we mean a power of the human will by
which a man can apply himself to the things which lead to eternal salvation, or turn away from them.
Among the texts that support free choice, priority is usually given to a passage in the book called Ecclesiasticus, or the
Wisdom of Sirach, ch. 15(:14-17):
“God made man from the beginning, and left him in the hand of his own counsel.
He added his commandments and precepts. If thou wilt observe the commandments, and keep acceptable fidelity forever, they
shall preserve thee.
He hath set water and fire before thee; stretch forth thine hand for which thou wilt.
Before man is life and death, good and evil; that which he shall choose shall be given him.”
I do not think anyone will object against the authority of this work that, as Jerome points out, it was not formerly received
into the canon of the Hebrews, since the Church of Christ has received it into its canon with common consent, nor do I see any
reason why the Hebrews should have thought fit to exclude this from their canon when they accept The Proverbs of Solomon and
The Song of Songs. And as for the last two books of Esdras, the story in Daniel of Susanna, Bel and the Dragon, Judith, Esther,
anyone who reads those books carefully will easily see why they were not received as canonical, but counted among the
Hagiographa. Yet in this work there is nothing of that kind to disturb the reader. This passage, therefore, declares that Adam, the
head of our race, was so created as to have an uncorrupted reason which could discern what should be sought and what avoided.
But there was added will, also incorrupt but nevertheless free so that it could turn itself from good and incline toward evil. In the
same state were the angels created before Lucifer and his companions renounced their Creator. In those who fell, the will was so
thoroughly perverted that they could not return to better things, while in those who remained faithful, their will was so established
in good that it could not henceforth turn aside into iniquity.
Man Before and After the Fall: The Forgiveness of Sins Restores
Freedom of Choice Through Grace
In man the will was so upright and free that, apart from new grace, he could continue in innocence but, apart from the help
of new grace, he could not attain the happiness of eternal life which the Lord Jesus promised to his followers. And although all
these things cannot be proved by the plain witness of the Scriptures, yet they have been most convincingly argued in the orthodox
Fathers. In the case of Eve, however, not only does the will seem to have been corrupt, but the reason also or intellect, the source
of all good and evil, for the serpent seems to have persuaded her that the threats were vain with which the Lord had forbidden them
to touch the Tree of Life.
In Adam, the will seems rather to have corrupted by immoderate love toward his spouse, whose desire he preferred to satisfy
rather than the commandment of God. Nevertheless, I think that in this his reason, from which the will is born, was also corrupted.
This power of the soul with which we judge, and it matters not whether you call it nous, that is, “mind” or “intellect,” or logos, that
is, “reason,” is obscured by sin, but not altogether extinguished. The will with which we choose or refuse was thus so far depraved
that by its natural powers it could not amend its ways, but once its liberty had been lost, it was compelled to serve that sin to which
it had once for all consented.
But, by the grace of God, when sin has been forgiven, the will is made free to the extent that, according to the views of the
Pelagians, even apart from the help of new grace it could attain eternal life, so that just as it could do homage for salvation
received to God who created and restored free will, according tot he orthodox, so it is possible for man, with the help of divine
grace (which always accompanies human effort), to continue in the right, yet not without a tendency to sin, owing to the vestiges
of original sin in him. Thus, as the sin of our progenitors has passed into their descendants, so the tendency to sin has passed to all,
though grace by abolishing sin so far mitigates it that it may be overcome, but not rooted out. Not that grace is incapable of
destroying it altogether, but that it was not expedient for us.
The Work of the Will, and the Threefold Law of Nature,
Works, and Faith
Likewise, just as in those who lack grace (I speak now of peculiar grace) reason was obscured but not extinguished, so it is
probably that in them, too, the power of the will was not completely extinguished, but that it was unable to perform the good. What
the eye is to the body, reason is to the soul. This is partly enlightened by that native light which is implanted in all men though not
in equal measure, as the psalm reminds us: “The light of thy countenance is impressed upon us, O Lord!” (Ps. 4:6), and partly by
divine precepts and Holy Scriptures, according as our psalmist says: “Thy word is a lamp to my feet” (Ps. 119:105). Thus there
arises for us a threefold kind of law: law of nature, law of works, law of faiths, to use Paul’s words. The law of nature is
thoroughly engraved in the minds of all men, among the Scythians as among the Greeks, and declares it to be a crime if any does
to another what he would not wish done to himself. And the philosophers, without the light of faith, and without the assistance of
Holy Scripture, drew from created things the knowledge of the everlasting power and divinity of God, and left many precepts
concerning the good life, agreeing wholeheartedly with the teachings of the Gospels, and with many words exhorting to virtue and
the detestation of wickedness. And in these things it is probable that there was a will in some way ready for the good but useless
for eternal salvation without the addition of grace by faith. The law of works, on the other hand, commands and threatens
punishment. It doubles sin and engenders death, not that it is evil, but because it commands actions which we cannot perform
without grace. The law of faith commands more arduous things than the law of works, yet because grace is plentifully added to it,
not only does it make things easy which of themselves are impossible, but it makes them agreeable also. Faith, therefore, cures
reason, which has been wounded by sin, and charity bears onward the weak will. The law of works was like this: “You may freely
eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it
you shall die” (Gen. 2:16-17). This law of works was further revealed by Moses: “You shall not kill: if you have killed, you shall
be killed”; “You shall not commit adultery” (Ex. 20:13-14). But what says the law of faith, which orders us to love our enemies, to
carry our cross daily, to despise our life? “Fear not, little flock, for yours is the kingdom of heaven” (Luke 12:32). And “Be of
good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). And “I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Matt 28:20). This law
the apostles showed forth when, after being beaten with rods for the name of Jesus, they went away rejoicing form the presence of
the Council. Thus Paul: “I can do all things in him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13). And no doubt this is what Ecclesiasticus had
in mind in saying: “He established with them an eternal covenant, and showed them his judgments” (Ecclus. 17:12). For whom? In
the first place, for those two founders of the human race in person, then the Jewish people by Moses and the prophets. The Law
shows what God wills, sets out the penalty to him who disobeys and the rewards to the obedient. For the rest it leaves the power of
choice to the will that was created in them free and able rapidly to run to one or the other. And, therefore, it says: “If you will keep
the commandments, they shall keep you” (Ecclus. 15:15). And again: “Stretch out your hand to whatever you wish” (v. 16). If the
power to distinguish good and evil and the will of God had been hidden from men, it could not be imputed to them if they made
the wrong choice. If the will had not been free, sin could not have been imputed, for sin would cease to be sin if it were not
voluntary, save when error or the restriction of the will is itself the fruit of sin. Thus the responsibility for rape is not imputed to
the one who has suffered violence.
Although this quotation from Ecclesiasticus seems peculiarly suited to our first parents, yet in a certain sense it is relevant
to all the posterity of Adam, but it would be irrelevant if there were no strength of free choice at all in us. For although free choice
is damaged by sin, it is nevertheless not extinguished by it. And although it has become so lame in the process that before we
receive grace we are more readily inclined toward evil than good, yet it is not altogether cut out, except that the enormity of crimes
which have become a kind of second nature so clouds the judgment and overwhelms the freedom of the will that the one seems to
be destroyed and the other utterly lost.
Different Kinds of Grace, and Three Views of Its Relation to Free Choice
What, then, is free choice worth in us after sin and before grace? About this point ancient and modern writers differ
amazingly, as each is concerned with a different aspect of the problem. Those who would avoid despair and complacency, but who
would inspire men to hope and endeavor, attributed more to free choice. Pelagius taught that once the human will was freed and
healed by grace there was no need of new grace, but that with the help of free will a man might attain to eternal salvation, but that
man owed his salvation to God, without whose grace the will of man was not effectively free to do good. And this very power of
the soul, with which a man embraces good when he knows it, and turns away from its opposite, is a gift of the Creator who might
have made him a frog instead of a man.
Those who profess the doctrine of Scotus are still more in favor of free choice, for they believe it to have such power that
even though a man has not received the grace which destroys sin, he may nonetheless, by his own natural powers, perform what
they call morally good works which, not “condignly” but “congruously,” merit that grace which “makes acceptable,” for so they
Diametrically opposed are those who argue that all these works, even though morally good, were detestable to God, no less
than crimes of the order of adultery and homicide, since they did not proceed from faith and love toward God. This view seems too
severe, especially since, if certain philosophers have had some knowledge of God, they might also have had faith and charity
toward God, for they did not act out of vainglory, but from a love of virtue and goodness, which, according to their teaching, is to
be embraced for no other reason than that it is good. Whether the case of a man who, on behalf of his country, exposed himself to
perils for the sake of vainglory is good in itself or morally good I do not know. St. Augustine and those who follow him,
considering how harmful to true godliness it is for man to trust in his own powers, are more inclined to favor grace, which Paul
everywhere stresses. For this reason, he denies that man liable to sin can turn to amend his life by his own powers, or do anything
which will bring him to salvation unless he is moved by the free gift of God to desire those things which lead to eternal life. This
grace which others call “prevenient,” Augustine calls “operative.” For faith, which is the doorway to salvation, is the free gift of
God. To this, charity is added by the more abundant gift of the Spirit, which he calls “cooperative grace,” which is always present
in those who strive until they attain their end, but on condition that at the same time and in the same work both free choice and
grace operate; grace, however, as the leader and not as a companion. Some, however, make a distinction at this point, saying: “If
you consider the work according to its nature, its principal cause is the will of man; if according to what is merited, grace is the
more powerful.” Nevertheless, faith which makes us will the things that belong to salvation, and love which sees that we do not
desire them in vain, are distinguished not so much in time as in nature. They both can be increased in successive degrees. Since
grace signifies a benefit freely given, we may speak of three or, if you prefer, four graces. The first is implanted by nature and
vitiated by sin (but, as we said, not extinguished), which some call a natural influx. This is common to all, and remains even in
those who persist in sin: they are free to speak, be silent, sit down, get up, help the poor, read Holy Scripture, listen to sermons; but
these things, in the opinion of some, in no way conduce to eternal life. Nor are there lacking those who, bearing in mind the
manifold goodness of God, say that man can so far make use of benefits of this kind that he may be prepared for grace and so call
forth the mercy of God. On that other hand, there are those who deny that this can happen without peculiar grace. Since this grace
is common to all, it is not called grace, though it really is grace, just as God every day works greater miracles by creating,
preserving, and ordering all things than if he healed a leper or liberated a demoniac, and yet these things are not called miracles,
because they are offered to all men alike every day.
The second is peculiar grace, with which God in his mercy arouses the sinner wholly without merit to repent, yet without
infusing that supreme grace which abolishes sin and makes him pleasing to God. Thus the sinner assisted by a second grace which
we called operative grace begins to be displeased with himself, although he has not yet put off all the desire of sin, yet by his alms
and prayers and his devotion to sacred studies, and by listening to sermons, as well as by appeals to good men for their prayers and
other deeds morally good, as they call them, he behaves as a candidate for the highest grace. They consider that this grace, which
we call the second grace, is, by the goodness of God, not denied to anyone, for the divine benevolence supplies sufficient
opportunities to each in this life by which he may recover, if he will, the use of the free choice that remains to him and put his
powers at the disposal of that divine will which invites but does not constrain him forcibly to higher things. And this they consider
to be within the power of our own choice — that we may apply our wills to grace, or turn away from it, just as we can open our
eyes to the light that is borne in upon them or close them again. Since, then, the immense love of God toward the race of men does
not suffer men to be cheated, so also by that grace which they call pleasing grace, if he seeks it with all his powers, no sinner ought
ever to be secure, yet on the other hand, none ought to despair; and, moreover, no man perishes save by his own fault. There is,
therefore, a natural grace; there is a stimulating grace (albeit imperfect); there is the grace that makes the will effective, which we
called cooperating, which allows us to perform that which we have undertaken to do; there is a grace that carries things to a
conclusion. These three they think to be one, although they are called by different names according to what they effect within us.
The first arouses, the second promotes, the third completes.
On the other hand, those who, at the other extreme from Pelagius, attribute most of all to grace and practically nothing to
free choice, yet do not entirely remove it, for they deny that man can will the good without peculiar grace, they deny that he can
make a beginning, they deny that he can progress, they deny he can reach his goal without the principal and perpetual aid of divine
grace. Their view seems probably enough in that it leaves man to study and strive, but it does not leave aught for him to ascribe to
his own powers. But harder is the opinion of those who contend that free choice is of no avail save to sin, and that grace alone
accomplishes good works in us, not be or with free choice but in free choice, so that our will does nothing more than wax in the
hand of the craftsman when it receives the particular shape that pleases him. These seem to me so anxious to avoid all reliance on
human merit that they pass praeter casam, as we say. Hardest of all seems the view of all those who say that free choice is a mere
empty name, nor does it avail either in the case of the angels or in Adam or in us, either before or after grace, but it is God who
works evil as well as good in us, and all things that happen come about by sheer necessity. My dispute will be most concerned with
the two last positions.
These things we have treated at some length for the sake of the inexpert reader (for I write as a plain man to plan men) that
may more easily understand the rest of the argument. That is why we considered first the passage from Ecclesiasticus, in which he
seems to point out most clearly the origin and power of free choice. Now, let us resume more rapidly the other testimonies of
Scripture. But that we may do this, let me first point out that this place is otherwise expounded in the Aldine edition than by
modern Ecclesiastical Latinists. For in the Greek there is not added “conservabunt te,” nor does Augustine add this in citing this
text. I myself judge that poiētai was written for poiēsai.
On 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
feat! — in Luther, who has not bee 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 let 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, the luck or chance or fate 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
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 fr3ee choice is a pure fiction; for, like the woman in the Gospel (Mark 5:25 f.), 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 maters, 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 gifts bears the burden and need of the other. Thus we shall fulfill the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2).
PART I. 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 you
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 is the frame of mind that pleases you. (E., p. 37.)
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 scared
writings. Elsewhere we have no need either of Erasmus or any other instructor to teach us that in matter 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 Rom. 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 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 a Christian may glorify Christ and confess him even unto death
— unless it is not asserting when one dies for one’s confession and 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, 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
rightly reminded of that, and as a favor to you I will waive my right and my custom, and not judge of you 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 though 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? (E., p. 37.) 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
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 making 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 Cor. (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 nay 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 gasped 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 obstinancy 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. Where you distinguish between Christian dogmas,
pretending that there are some which it is necessary to know, and some which it is not, you say that some are secret and some plain
to see. (E., p. 38.) 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 view, Paul’s saying in Rom. 11 (:33): “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and
knowledge of God,” and also that of Isa. 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 whose 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
Writ, and has made Holy Scripture contemptible, in order to enable the plagues he has bred from philosophy to prevail in the
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 our 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 them, 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 things 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 are 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. Cor. (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 f.). 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, Isa.
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
Cor. 2(:12). So you see how inattentively you have look 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 cases, you say, there is ambiguity that has never been cleared up. (E., p. 39.) 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
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 Ps. 13(14:1) 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
But 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. (E., pp. 39 f.) 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 worshipped 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 (E., p. 39), 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” (E., p. 41) 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 (E., p. 39) 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 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
Vergil 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
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 do 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 essential 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 known 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 is in your description of Christianity (E., p. 39.) 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; Contingence 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
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? (e., p. 39.)
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 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 his foreknowledge is an
attribute of his will, then his will is eternal and unchanging, because that is its nature; if his will is an attribute of his
foreknowledge, then his foreknowledge is eternal and unchanging, because that is its nature.
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
imutability, 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” (ch.
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 Vergil (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. Vergil’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 Vergil. 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. 1:21f.)), 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 known 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 Rom. 3(:4): “Let God be true though
every man be false,” and again (in ch. 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 Heb. 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 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 ill-advised 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 our 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 attached 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” (E., p.40).
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 peace-loving 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 (E., p. 40.)
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 and 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 (E., p. 40).
First, let them blather who will; we are not here discussion 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
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 different 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 Scipture 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 he 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 confession (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 f.), 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 Rom. 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, sot hat legal
tyrants of this kind are nothing else but ravening wolves, thieves, and robbers of the 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 cruelest 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 are less evil to bear than their removal, 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 every time in every way. What a fluent orator you are! Yet you
understand nothing of what you are saying. In a work, you that 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