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  • The Battle over Free Will by Desiderius Erasmus and Martin Luther
  • Alice Crawford Berghof
Desiderius Erasmus and Martin Luther, The Battle over Free Will, trans. Clarence H. Miller and Peter Macardle, ed. Clarence H. Miller, intro. James D. Tracy (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2012) 355 pp.

Erasmus has the first and last word in this version of the famous debate on free will. He needs all the help he can get, given that Luther captivates the readers with his scathing wit, pristine deductive logic, and pithy if dismissive rejoinders. The inclusion of Erasmus’s two-part response in the 1526 and 1527 The Shield-Bearer Defending “A Discussion” distinguishes this volume from predecessors that include simply the 1524 text by Erasmus, A Discussion or Discourse Concerning Free Will, and the 1525 response by Luther, The Enslaved Will. Although the three parts—Erasmus’s Discussion, Luther’s The Enslaved Will, and Erasmus’s The Shield-Bearer—comprise the central texts, a fuller treatment of the debate could be framed by Luther’s works. For example, one could begin with Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses of 1517, the Explanation of the Ninety-Five Theses of 1518, and his Assertions of All the Articles of 1521 in which Luther “contended that human nature is irretrievably corrupt” (xxiii). Following the debate with Erasmus, the catechisms, worship service, and German mass written by Luther from 1525 to 1529 would constitute the next stage of the exchange, and could be included in future editions as Luther’s implicit responses to Erasmus.

As it stands, this volume of substantial excerpts translated by Clarence H. Miller and Peter Macardle, edited and annotated by Clarence H. Miller, and introduced by James D. Tracy, provides Reformation scholars with the most comprehensive existing treatment of the exchange between Erasmus and Luther on the Reformation exegesis, philosophy, and politics of free will, grace, and Law. The comprehensive and detailed biographical and theological introduction concisely covers the cultural history and the central doctrinal issues informing the debate, most notably the Pauline influences. Although the introduction mentions Augustine’s Pelagianism, further editions of the volume should broaden the spectrum of the Augustinian background to include a brief survey of his work on free will and grace, beginning with the quite brief, early text De libero arbitrio, followed by excerpts from works that show the development from Manichaeism to Pelagianism, culminating in the later texts’ balanced notion of free will dependent on grace, and a heightened interest in the close reading of scripture. Such a discussion appears in the present edition in a humbly condensed form: admirably thorough footnotes that extend the background [End Page 253] discussion of Augustine to include a commentary on Erasmus’s misinterpretation of the concept of grace as it is expressed in works such as De spiritu et litera; in addition, these notes provide the source for Erasmus’s use of the concept of freedom of counsel in Bernard (see notes on pp. 213, 318–319). Such an addition would be justified by the heavy emphasis on Augustine throughout the debate, as well as by the section on Augustine and merit that concludes the second part of The Shield-Bearer (338–346).

A main interpretive achievement of this volume is the thoroughness and innovation of its commentary, outline, and section headings—original contributions to this edition that are not found in the original texts. However, the volume tips the balance toward Erasmus, if not in the introductory remarks that aptly find Luther “the better debater,” then in the nature of the section headings and in the editorial ideology of omissions. Key arguments by both men on the definition of free will, for example, will be sorely missed by literary scholars captivated by the first part of The Shieldbearer Defending “A Discussion” and specifically by the rare syllogistic force and rapid pace of “Erasmus’ definition of free will” according to Erasmus (188–216). Nonetheless, this volume’s extensive and detailed outline includes informative titles for all sections in the volume as well as those omitted from it. By way of the outline alone, readers can get a sense of the contrast between Luther’s deductive method and Erasmus’s inferential reasoning...


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pp. 253-255
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