Friday, January 3, 2020

Sympathy and Confrontation

The Bondage of the Will, by Martin Luther; translation and introduction by J. I. Packer & O. R. Johnston

From 1517 onwards, the relationship of Luther and Erasmus mattered to men of letters, theologians, and princes.  Erasmus was not a fan of dogmatic theology; Luther was, if nothing else, a dogmatic theologian.  Yet Erasmus, like Luther, noted the corruption in the Church – offering mocking attacks.  He was, like Luther, a proponent of reform; unlike Luther, Erasmus carried his crusade strictly within the bounds of the official Church.

Where Luther saw Augustine as the greatest exegetical writer and Jerome “a poor second,” Erasmus would reverse the order.  Their views on works-righteousness differed, yet despite these differences, the two men shared a cordial relationship…for a time.  Luther would write of a dialogue of Erasmus which he had just read:

“It is so agreeably, learnedly and wittily put together, that is, so thoroughly Erasmian in fact, that it compels one to smile and jest on the subject of the faults and misfortunes of the church of Christ, which, however, it is every Christian’s duty to deplore before God in deepest grief.”

In this single sentence one finds both the sympathy and coming confrontation between these two men.  Both men took the issues as important.  Erasmus, seemingly, would poke fun as the means to promote examination and change; Luther would come to poke with something much more pointed.

In general [Erasmus] affirms that Luther has done and said much that is good, but that his rough manner will lose him many friends.

Erasmus notes the good that Luther has done to get many to examine again the church fathers for themselves.  He notes that Luther’s views were approved by some of the best men: “…it is the plague of Christendom.”  However, as to specific doctrinal issues raised by Luther, Erasmus remains vague. 

Many who would be described as Lutheran elite were also close friends and admirers of Erasmus.  During 1519, the rapprochement between Luther and Erasmus would be as close as it could ever be.  To many, the two were seen as going arm in arm – Erasmus the father of Luther’s heresy, both in need of conversion.

Luther would be used as a stick with which to beat Erasmus.  This was used as a tactic to get Erasmus to take a stand in favor of the Church and against Luther.  It was a desire of Erasmus’s friends as much as of his enemies.  Erasmus saw the progression of the wider discussion, knowing that it would devolve into a clash – passionate disputation, heresy trials, and persecution and hatred would follow.  Erasmus hated all such things.

Erasmus could not side with Luther against the Pope; the Pope’s favor and protection were invaluable to him – with the Pope’s favor, he could pretty much say and do as he liked, but openly supporting Luther would be a bridge too far.  Erasmus noted that all the best men read Luther’s books.  He would take a position supportive of Luther’s desire for a far debate, yet stopping short of support for Luther’s doctrines:

But everyone knows, continued Erasmus, that Luther’s life is pure, free from ambition and covetousness; so where is the Christian mercy of those who shout for his blood?  Luther is willing to discuss and be proved wrong if his opponents can produce satisfactory evidence to refute his views.

Erasmus would caution Luther to show restraint: do not attack the Pope or princes directly, but attack practices and abuses of power.  In other words, don’t make it personal.  He counsels coolness, courtesy, and moderation. 

The letter does Erasmus credit in many ways, but it shows that he had not yet fully grasped the issues at stake.

But why would he?  Erasmus was not a theologian.  He was, on the one hand, calling for Luther to be offered an open and fair disputation, while on the other cautioning Luther to remain courteous.  It seems a perfectly appropriate – and Christian – position for one who is not trained theologically.

This was insufficient for both his friends and enemies alike.  Given Erasmus’s position in Europe generally, and with the Pope specifically, many would push him to confront Luther directly.

In June and July 1519, Luther and others from Wittenberg would dispute with Eck at Leipzig.  Johann Maier von Eck was among Martin Luther's most important interlocutors and theological opponents.  Carlstadt would debate Eck on the freedom of the will; Luther would debate Eck on the primacy of the Pope.  Luther was sure that this was a false doctrine.

He was taking positions similar to some who came before him: Wycliffe, the Waldensians, and particularly John Hus the Bohemian reformer, burned at Constance.  There was now sufficient evidence to declare Luther a heretic.

Erasmus was now forced to make a statement:

I do not know him; I have only had time to glance at his books; I have advised him to be moderate; I am neither his patron nor his accuser; certain theologians can only shriek heretic and never indicate where Luther is wrong.

One still sees in this a fair-minded approach advised by Erasmus – debate Luther properly!  There are things that Luther maintains – things labeled heresy by some – that are to be found in Augustine and Bernard.  These cannot merely be brushed to the side.  Erasmus would continue to place the burden on both sides: Luther must be moderate, but the theologians must debate Luther honestly and openly with a fair hearing.  It is a reasonable protest.  Neither side would take his words to heart.

The year 1520 would bring Luther’s final breach with Rome; Erasmus would begin to see how deep was the divide between his views and those of Luther.  As Luther became surer of his views, he became more headstrong and confrontational in presenting these.  While Erasmus continued to wish that Luther would act with moderation, he counseled against the burning of Luther’s books and tracts.

In September, Erasmus would write: ‘If only Luther had followed my advice…I shall not become mixed up in this tragic affair.’  The Pope would offer a bishopric if he would write against Luther; Erasmus gracefully declines – without making a blunt refusal.

The next month brought Luther’s most decisive writings to date: On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church.  Certainly no moderation in that title.  The reaction was instantaneous, costing Luther many supporters even in Germany.  Erasmus found himself further dragged into the middle of a confrontation he would rather avoid. 

Erasmus is reported to have told Luther’s protector, Frederick the Wise, that Luther has sinned greatly.  Yet, when asked by Frederick for a confidential written memorandum on the matter, Erasmus offered twenty “pregnant sentences,” including:

·         The affair is more serious than many believe
·         Luther is honest and well-intentioned
·         His enemies are actuated by evil motives
·         The cruelty of the Papal bull is unworthy of a representative of Christ
·         It would be better to put the matter before a court of honest and unbiased scholars

This confidential memorandum was soon to be made public.  Erasmus found himself further compromised.  Luther would burn the aforementioned Papal Bull.


Luther had many justifiable grievances; he also would grow increasingly antagonistic – understandable, perhaps, for one who felt rebuffed on matters of eternal importance.  The Pope, willing to accept Erasmus as a leader of reform within the Church, found little support for this within the Church power structure.

Until 1519, two years after the publication of the Ninety-Five Theses, there may have been some hope for proper dialogue.  In 1520, this all came crashing down.  But the story is not yet over.  Erasmus was now forced to address Luther openly.

1 comment:

  1. Never knew Erasmus was trying to mediate between the 2 sides.

    If the Catholic Church would have followed his advice, I doubt the Protestants would have split. Theologically it is probably better that it did. For European society it is probably was for the worse.

    Also, consider Erasmus a theologian on some level before. He also seemed to be involved in theological disputes.