"Your thoughts about God are all too human"
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.