Pelagianism – A falsis principiis proficisci (Part 5)

Another rustic defends the Church

Despite being continuously rejected by the Church, Semi-Pelagianism (as it was now known) continued to be a source of controversy.  The debate erupted again in a contest between Luther and Erasmus.  Both men hoped to reform the Church of their time.  However, Erasmus, the learned and elegant translator of the Greek New Testament, sought a peaceful, undoctrinal humanistic reform.  Luther, who described himself as “barbarus in barbarie semper versatus,” was the leader of the highly doctrinal revolutionary Augustinian evangelicalism reform.[1]


Again, the two antagonist were cordial at the beginning.  Erasmus approved of much of what Luther had to say.  However, Erasmus was put off by Luther’s rough way of dealing with other in the need to reform the Church.  Pushed by supporters and a dig at his abilities by Luther, Erasmus penned On the Freedom of the Will which pitted him against Luther.  Luther responded with what has become known as the “Manifesto of the Reformation,” the translated title being The Bondage of the Will.[2]

Luther considered Erasmus’ Semi-Pelagianism worse than outright paganism, because it lead weaker Christians to the uncertainty of their own choices.  These wretches would always be trying harder or worrying over their salvation rather than simply accepting God grace through Jesus Christ.  Luther also attacked “Erasmus’s tone of ‘bored detachment’ towards the subject at hand was ‘fundamentally irreligious and in a theologian irresponsible.”[3]   And Luther made it clear that no form of Pelagianism could be true because fallen man can do nothing but sin and any independent meritorious act could not be carried out by fallen man without that act being the will of God.  Even the hint of such power in fallen man would be a denial of Christ.[4]

Stung by the ruthlessness of Luther’s word, Erasmus retreated into the more receptive arms of the Roman church.  Although influential at the time, Erasmus has been lost in the long line of humanist ‘reformers’ of the church in Rome.  Luther on the other hand set a course for the true Church of Jesus Christ.


[1] Martin Luther. The Bondage of the Will, trans. J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Fleming H. Revell 1988).  “I am an uncivilized fellow who has lived his life in the backwoods.”
[2] Lee Gatiss.  “The Manifesto of the Reformation — Luther vs. Erasmus on Free Will.”  The Theologian.  accessed April 16, 2014.
[3]  Gatiss. “The Manifesto of the Reformation — Luther vs. Erasmus on Free Will.”
[4]  Luther. The Bondage of the Will.


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