The Bondage of the Will, by Martin Luther; translation and introduction by J. I. Packer & O. R. Johnston
I will state up front: this post will not be an examination of Luther’s theology and his response to Erasmus beyond that which is necessary to set the stage for the confrontation. It will be an examination of their relationship, interactions, the roles they played in regard to each other and in what became the Protestant Reformation. The post will be based on material from the introduction of the book.
There is no way to overstate the importance of the Reformation to the history of Western Civilization and to the trajectory of liberty in the West – in both positive and negative ways. Where these two men intersected, therefore, is right at the philosophical and theological crossroads of one of the most important intersections in Western history.
Just for completeness, an introduction of the two main characters:
Martin Luther, (10 November 1483 – 18 February 1546) was a German professor of theology, composer, priest, monk, and a seminal figure in the Protestant Reformation.
Luther came to reject many teachings of the Catholic Church ranging from the practice of indulgences to the method of salvation.
Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus (28 October 1466 – 12 July 1536), known as Erasmus or Erasmus of Rotterdam, was a Dutch philosopher and Christian humanist who is widely considered to have been one of the greatest scholars of the northern Renaissance.
Erasmus was also critical of abuses in the Church, calling for reform – albeit remaining committed to reform within the Church and not in opposition to it.
I must mention, if it isn’t obvious: the writers of this introduction are inherently sympathetic with Luther. There is a new book out about Erasmus and Luther, Fatal Discord: Erasmus, Luther, and the Fight for the Western Mind. At some point I will get my hands on this in hopes of a balanced treatment of the subject – not that the portrayal by Packer and Johnston are wrong (to my understanding); it is just that their sympathy must be noted.
The introduction begins with a look at Erasmus – up to 1517, at the point where Luther may have taken hammer to nail:
Erasmus was…a man of unsurpassed learning. No man in Europe could rival him in reading and writing the classical tongues.
Erasmus was no theologian; he also was not fond of the scholastics – Aquinas and Scotus; in them he saw barren intellectualism and spiritual poverty.
The New Testament of Erasmus was the first and perhaps the greatest step in the story of Biblical textual criticism. …For the first time the laity were able to see, side by side, the Christianity which converted the world, and the Christianity of a Church with a Borgia Pope, cardinal, princes, ecclesiastical courts and a mythology of lies.
Needless to say, Erasmus made some enemies:
The clergy were more or less antagonized en bloc. Monks and friars protested in all quarters and began plotting the downfall of Erasmus. Universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, proscribed all of his writings.
But all was not lost:
His reputation was high in learned circles, the Pope (to whom the Novum Instrumentum was dedicated) was on his side, and the political powers of the Empire, France, and England were favourable to him.
The Pope wished that Erasmus would lead the Bishops in a peaceful crusade to correct abuses and the reading of the Scriptures. We might never had heard of Luther if this was carried out. But vested interests (lust for money, pleasure, and power) had too great a hold on the system. Call it the Catholic deep state.
Now on to Luther, again up to 1517. He was often less than cheerful company. A bright student, he angered his father when he abandoned his law studies and became a monk. His soul was continuously troubled: had he prayed and fasted enough? His theological studies didn’t help when he ran into Occam, who taught that…
…man could, of his own free will unaided by grace, choose to do what was morally good and avoid what was morally evil, follow and enjoy the Divine commands and ‘of his own natural powers love God above all things.’
Obviously, ideas that did not sit well with Luther’s tormented soul. It didn’t help when Luther travelled to Rome: where Erasmus saw learning and culture, Luther saw a monstrous organization steeped in extravagance and decadence. Luther would thereafter study for his Doctor’s degree and finally assumed the chair of Theology and the new University of Wittenberg.
Something must be said about Luther’s theological views in order to set the stage for the battle to come – the battle with the Church and the battle with Erasmus. During this time, he came to conclude his strong view on righteousness by faith received solely by grace, not works. Man has no free will in moving toward righteousness. As he was, at this time, also a preacher every Sunday, these views informed his preaching:
He knew eternity was in the balance every time he preached to his sturdy Saxon audience.
This preaching included three sermons in 1516 against indulgences. Bonaventura and Aquinas incorporated indulgences in their theological systems; the Council of Trent would further confirm these after the Reformation. Luther viewed forgiveness depending solely on true interior contrition.
The differences reached a tipping point when Pope Leo X needed money to complete St. Peter’s in Rome. All who contributed would enjoy perfect remission of all sins. On October 31, 1517, Luther decided that his grievances should be publicly aired. On that day he sent his Ninety-Five Theses to Albert of Brandenburg, Archbishop of Mainz; he may have also nailed these to the church door.
Luther was asking for theological disputation and correction of abuses; instead, his work spread like wildfire.
But students copied the theses, translated them and took them to printers. Within two weeks they were known all over Germany, and throughout Europe in as many months.
The stage is set for one of the most pivotal moments in Western history.