Results tagged “Erasmus” from Reformation21 Blog

The details of Luther's mid-1520s tussle with Erasmus over the issue of sin's impact on human freedom are generally well known. Luther responded to Erasmus's 1524 De libero arbitrio diatribe sive collatio with his own 1525 De servo arbitrio [On the Bondage of the Will]. Erasmus, deeply offended when the faux charity and grace he displayed in his work weren't reciprocated by the German monk, responded in turn with a decidedly less magnanimous two-part effort titled Hyperaspistes (1526/27). Luther never bothered answering this later work, largely because he felt that Erasmus had done a fine job of hanging himself in it--clearly evidencing to all the Pelagian tenor of his thought. 

But Erasmus didn't completely fall off Luther's radar screen after 1527. In fact, as time went on, Luther became increasingly convinced that Erasmus was to blame for a considerable number of theological and social ills in Germany, not least the rising tide of Anabaptism. In 1534 Luther accordingly published an open letter to his friend Nicolaus von Amsdorf in which he expressed his distaste for Erasmus in no uncertain terms, calling him, for instance, a "palmerworm who [has] crept into the paradise of the Church, and filled every leaf with his maggots." Luther suggested that he himself had judged Erasmus too charitably in the past, finding him principally guilty of treating "the most sacred subjects" with too much "levity." He noted that his own effort to rouse Erasmus from his "snoring" -- presumably a reference to Luther's De servo arbitrio, which was addressed to Erasmus -- had only served to provoke Erasmus, like a deadly viper. Luther was now convinced, he confided to his friend (and anyone else who cared to tune in), that Erasmus's problem was "not simply levity, but [rather] malice and an entire ignorance of Christianity" (Henry Worsley, Life of Luther, 2:281). 

Compared to some of the shots Luther fired in his lifetime, his remarks on Erasmus in 1534 seem rather mild. But they were strident enough to elicit regret from Philip Melanchthon over Luther's "petulance," a "petulance" Melanchthon was quick to chalk up to "old age" rather than innate temperament. 

To be sure, Luther was quite capable of petulance, as any number of other exchanges might illustrate. But his concerns about Erasmus probably had more substance than Melanchthon realized. 

Luther's comments about Erasmus were premised on a brief review of several of Erasmus's notable writings, with observation of some flaws. Thus, for instance, he took stock of a catechism Erasmus had written for children some years before, and noted how the Humanist scholar had failed significantly in his effort to articulate very basic Christian doctrine to those in need of sound, straightforward teaching. Indeed, Erasmus's catechism, in Luther's judgment, even served to undermine orthodox Trinitarianism by raising rather unfortunate (and decidedly unnecessary) questions about traditional teaching on the relationship of the divine persons. "Why in the Apostles' Creed," Erasmus asked early modernity's youngsters, "is the Father called God; the Son, not God but Lord; the Spirit neither God nor Lord, but only Holy?" No matter what answer followed, Luther noted, the question itself could only serve to engender doubt in tender minds about the full divinity of Son and Spirit. 

In hindsight, Luther's concerns about Erasmus seem fairly well founded. The opening pages of Erasmus's Diatribe (for instance) do, it must be said, evidence a relative disinterest in, and disparaging of, fundamental doctrines such as the Trinity and Hypostatic Union in favor of (ostensibly) "clearer" biblical truths about how to behave one's self. Even Rome herself eventually turned on Erasmus, placing several of his works on the Index of Prohibited Books

In short, if Luther's concerns and criticisms of Erasmus -- driven by Luther's profound sense of the need for clarity and precision in articulating the basic truths of our Christian faith; driven too by sensitivity to the significance of what a basic catechetical text doesn't say about its purported subject in addition to what it does say -- constituted petulance (as Melanchthon charged), perhaps more petulance is precisely what's needed in our own day.
The Westminster Conference will take place later this year, God willing, in central London at Regent Hall on Oxford Street. As usual, there are two days of lectures and discussion, Tuesday 8th and Wednesday 9th December. The outline for the two days is below, and the brochure can be downloaded to obtain the booking form. More information can be found at the conference website.

Sin and sanctification in John Owen (Sinclair Ferguson ~ Elder at St. Peter's Free Church, Dundee). John Owen is one of the monumental figures of the seventeenth century. His profound scriptural sensitivity to sin and understanding of sanctification form some of the deepest currents of his work both as a theologian and as a pastor. This paper will explore these complementary and contradictory elements of Christian experience through the lens of Owen's wrestling with the issues.

"On the side of God": Andrew Fuller's pastoral theology
(Jeremy Walker ~ Pastor of Maidenbower Baptist Church, Crawley). Andrew Fuller is recognised as a theologian and for his friendship with and support of William Carey. However, these labours cannot be divorced from his principles and practices as a pastor and a preacher. This was his primary calling. It informed and was expressed in everything else in which he was involved. This paper will draw together some of the convictions recorded, conclusions reached and counsels expressed by Andrew Fuller in the realm of pastoral theology.

The atonement and evangelistic preaching in John Owen (David Pfeiffer ~ Minister of Cheltenham Evangelical Free Church). Apparent tensions between convictions about the definite extent of the atonement joined with commitments to the freeness of the gospel offer are perennial issues in Christ's church. Few men have contended for the former more effectively than John Owen and his works breathe a lively and transparent concern that lost men should trust in the only Saviour of sinners. David Pfeiffer will help us to see these elements of Owen's labour in healthy parallel.

Erasmus and the Greek New Testament (Peter Hallihan ~ retired from pastoral ministry; Editorial Consultant for TBS). Erasmus of Rotterdam (1469-1536) was the genius sometimes described as the prince of the humanists. Perhaps his most enduring contribution to learning and religion was his edition of the Greek New Testament of 1516, which became the basis of most vernacular translations of the Scriptures for the next three centuries. Peter Hallihan will give us insights into the man and his work, tracing some of his influences and influence.

Jonathan Edwards and the religious affections
(Paul Helm ~ formerly Professor of the History and Philosophy of Religion, King's College, London). The name of Jonathan Edwards, together with select elements of his theology, has become more prominent in the thinking and practice of Reformed evangelicals in recent years. Ready reference is made to well-known but not always well-understood works such as Edwards' study of the religious affections. Paul Helm will take a fresh look at this book, emphasising its setting and its sources, helping us grasp the substance and application of Edwards' work.

Isaac Watts and the gift of prayer
(Benedict Bird ~ ThM Student and Greek Teacher at London Theological Seminary). Best known for his hymnody, Isaac Watts was also an influential theologian. He considered prayer to be not only a duty but a precious privilege, and he wrote to assist the saints in learning to pray. He showed that prayer is a gift, but one that can be developed. Prayer is not always high on the agenda in the church of Christ, and not often developed to a high degree when it is. In his Guide to Prayer, Watts directs us still to cultivate "this holy skill of conversation with God."

So wrote Luther to Erasmus in his Bondage of the Will. Few if any phrases from Luther have been more misunderstood. One regularly sees Luther's words invoked to emphasize the transcendence, the otherness, of God. Luther criticized Erasmus, it is assumed, for failing to grasp God's freedom and sovereignty, particularly as those attributes find expression in the exercise of God's grace.

To be sure, Luther reserved plenty of criticism for Erasmus for failing to appreciate God's free and sovereign prerogative to discriminate between elect and reprobate sinners. But that was hardly his point when he suggested Erasmus's "thoughts about God" were "too human." These particular words were triggered by Erasmus's suggestion that some theological questions were unprofitable to discuss before the masses. Erasmus illustrated his point by recalling the scholastic question of whether God is present in the hole of the dung beetle. Not particularly savoring the idea of occupying a dung beetle hole himself, Erasmus had a hard time seeing any relevance or fruit in theological speculation that places God there.

Luther, somewhat ironically and uncharacteristically, came to the rescue of the scholastic theologians on this point, pointing out that God is very much in the business of occupying rather unpleasant territory. Indeed, God occupied the most unlikely and unpleasant territory of all -- the human womb -- in order to achieve the salvation of his people. The medieval divines who asked whether God was present in the hole of the dung beetle, then, weren't necessarily out of theological bounds in their questioning.

When Luther rebuked Erasmus for thinking "too human" thoughts of God, then, he was criticizing him for failing to grasp the immanence of God, for failing to realize the lengths God went to in the incarnation in order to rescue his people.

Here are Luther's words in full:

"You are wrong...in condemning as unprofitable the public discussion of the proposition that God is in the hole or the sewer. Your thoughts about God are all too human. There are, I admit, some shallow preachers who, from no motives of religion or piety, but perhaps from a desire for popularity or a thirst for some novelty or a distaste for silence, prate and trifle in the shallowest way. But those please neither God nor men, even if they assert that God is the heaven of heavens. But where there are serious and godly preachers who teach in modest, pure, and sound words, they speak on such a subject in public without risk, and indeed with great profit. Ought we not all to teach that the Son of God was in the womb of the Virgin and came forth from her belly? But how does a human belly differ from any other unclean place? Anyone could describe it in foul and shameless terms, but we rightly condemn those who do, seeing that there are plenty of pure words with which to speak of that necessary theme even with decency and grace. Again the body of Christ himself was human as ours is, and what is fouler than that? Are we therefore not to say that God dwelt in it bodily, as Paul has said (Col. 2.9)? What is fouler than death? What more horrifying than hell? Yet the prophet glories that God is present with him in death and hell (Ps. 139.8). Therefore, a godly mind is not shocked to hear that God is present in death or hell, both of which are more horrible and foul than either a hole or a sewer."

Luther's rebuke of Erasmus is a warning to us all. Let us not fall into the trap of thinking "too human" thoughts of God, of failing, in other words, to appreciate that God goes to much greater lengths -- or rather, depths -- than we creatures could ever anticipate or dream to be with us, to accomplish our salvation and to restore us to eternal fellowship with his Triune self.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.