Tuesday, January 7, 2020

The Final Divide

On January 22nd, 1521, the new Emperor Charles V opened his first Imperial Diet at Worms.  As King of Spain, he had had domestic matters to attend to between the time of his election (June, 1519) and his coronation (October), but now the Lutheran heresy was to come before him at Worms.

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

Aleander, armed with the Papal Bull of excommunication, was hoping for condemnation without a trial.  Charles, knowing that there was strong support for Luther in Germany, understood that there would be bloodshed if Luther was condemned without a hearing.

Luther arrived under an Imperial safe-conduct.  He was shown his books and asked to recant them all; he asked for a day to consider.  The following day he attempted to make a distinction between his various works and to secure a debate from Scripture on them.  This request was refused – he was ordered to recant.  Luther could not do so unless convinced from Scripture or plain reason. 

Luther left Worms, still under safe-conduct.  On the return to Wittenberg he disappeared.  Rumors of his death spread; instead, he was in hiding in one of Frederick’s castles in Wartburg – spending several months in disguise.  He would spend the time studying and thinking, all the while his hatred of the Roman doctrine would increase.

Aleander was the sworn enemy of Erasmus – calling Erasmus the great cornerstone of the Lutheran heresy; he worked to drag Erasmus into the matter.  Erasmus feared that Luther’s burning was at hand.  Yet both Luther and Erasmus came to understand that confrontation between the two of them was inevitable.

Erasmus preferred peace; Luther preferred the cross (as he saw it).  Erasmus was not ignorant of the dilemma: he rightly saw that virtually any solution to the crisis would be a bad one.  As much as Luther would flee from moderation, Erasmus saw that the Church would do the same.

Meanwhile Erasmus moved to Basel, hoping to avoid the confrontation.  The new Pope, Adrian VI, was an old school friend of Erasmus.  The Pope urged Erasmus to come to Rome and write against Luther; Erasmus politely refused.  However, he did counsel moderation and urged Adrian to attempt real reform.  Even through 1522, Erasmus urged caution and moderation, urging against the burning of Luther’s books and against heated, polemical writing.  A counsel of serious and dispassionate scholars should be established to decide what to do.

Then in 1523, the king of England would urge Erasmus to write against Luther; the walls were closing in on Erasmus to take sides.  The first martyrs of the Reformation had died at Brussels.  Erasmus never ceased to deplore the situation, writing “What Luther wrote of the tyranny, avarice, and iniquity of the Roman curia – would that it were false!”

Erasmus would show the evils of Rome, yet would not write of the good – at least according to Luther.  By the end of the year, Erasmus decides he must write something on free-will, but does not want it published until he leaves Germany.  In 1524, Luther suggests to Erasmus that neither should write against the other, counseling Erasmus to remain a spectator to the tragedy. 

Erasmus would reply with bitterness.  Satan might delude Luther’s mind, with broken friendships and bloodshed the result.  In September 1524, his book on free will was published – a result, no doubt, of the constant pressure on Erasmus by both friends and enemies to take a stand.

The Pope, the Emperor, and Henry VIII all praised the work.  Melanchthon noted that there remained many points of agreement between Erasmus and Luther.  Erasmus would go on to write that he saw Luther as one in a long line that God used to chastise the chosen people for their own good. 

Luther would respond to Erasmus’s book on free will.  He would write On the Enslaved Will – four times the length of Erasmus’s work, strongly controversial in tone and considerably blunter than Erasmus had been.  Luther wrote to Erasmus to explain his tone (it was nasty); Erasmus would reply in a terse, bitter letter in April 1526.

Erasmus sees Luther as a destroyer of civil, religious and cultural harmony and order.  In later years, Erasmus would cool, noting that freedom of the will is a thorny issue which profits little to debate:

‘…let us leave it to professed theologians.  But we can agree that man of his own power can do nothing and is wholly dependent on the mercy of God; that faith is of great value, a gift of the Holy Spirit, though we may have differences of opinion as to the precise mode of its operation’

Luther saw Erasmus as an enemy of God, an Epicurean and a serpent.  And he was not afraid to say so.  And we know the rest of the history.


The authors close the introduction with an expansion of just what Luther meant by free will.  It had nothing to do with the daily choices people make – although many would paint Luther with this brush. 

It was man’s total inability to save himself, and the sovereignty of Divine grace in his salvation, that Luther was affirming when he denied ‘free-will’…The ‘free-will’ in question was ‘free-will’ in relation to God and the things of God. …The whole work of man’s salvation, first to last, is God’s; and all the glory for it must be God’s also.

While I have my own thoughts on the matter, I will keep these to myself.  As you know, for purposes of this blog such things are secondary.  The important matter here was that Christendom – with all of the good and not-so-good that came with it – was to be fractured, leading to war and, ultimately, the Enlightenment.  Neither a good outcome for liberty.

Erasmus offered an approach that, if followed early on and before Luther became so hard-headed, could have led to some proper end – proper reforms in Church practices and a proper hearing for the theological questions.  Unfortunately, too many people stood against such a path.


After the introduction comes the translation of Luther’s work – his reply to Erasmus.  I could only read a few pages – not that I was planning to write on any of it.  Luther is nasty – truly nasty:

…your book…struck me as so worthless and poor…

…what kept me from rushing in with an answer to you was…simply disgust, disinclination, and distaste – which, if I may say so, express my judgement of your Diatribe.

Luther ends his introduction by hoping that one day he and Erasmus can again meet as loving brothers.  His tone and arrogance ensured that this could never be the case.


  1. The Meeting House (https://www.themeetinghouse.com/) has a series on the "real" reformation = the radical reformation. The first installment is linked below: "Anabaptists and Us - Radical Reformation 01."

    Luther was a statist and the reformation did nothing but the "same old same old" with a costume change. What we are told about the "reformation" is most often a cultural myth (his-story/man-story). Invert this myth (and the myth the "reformation" was supposedly trying to "reform") and it is all about the witness. Libertarians, steeped in austrian economics/human action should get this concept (the t-shirt Bruxy wears in the first installment of the series demonstrates the witness perspective). Understand the radical reformation - leave the myth of the "reformation" to the statists and "his-torians."


    PS You could also read "Martyr's Mirror" - NOT to be confused with "Foxe's Book on Martyr's"
    Read more Jean-Luc Marion

  2. "Erasmus would go on to write that he saw Luther as one in a long line that God used to chastise the chosen people for their own good."

    I wonder if this was truly the case, or considering the actual consequences of Luther, was it a demon in his ear instead? No doubt the Catholic Church was corrupt and increasingly reliant upon or captured by powerful monarchs, but why didn't God use Erasmus to mend the wounds of the Church? What if Erasmus was more influential than Luther and Calvin and the Church stayed intact, while making good reforms, as it had done in the past?

    Or is Christianity better off splintered in a diversity of forms, cultural groups, and theologies? I often wonder if having one Church hierarchy is even a good idea.