Erasmus and Luther: The Final Fray
The real problem, however, was not in accepting the authority of Scripture. The real problem was the authority of the interpretation of Scripture. Luther, objected Erasmus, “constantly opposes either his own revelation or his own personal interpretation”.
Edward Burger, Erasmus and the Anabaptists (1977) pgs. 7-8
I confess it is right that the sole authority of Holy Scripture should outweigh all the votes of all mortal men. But the authority of Scripture is not here in dispute. The same Scriptures are acknowledged and venerated by either side. Our battle is about the meaning of Scripture.
Erasmus, Freedom of the Will
To believe that the church is in need of reform is one thing, but to approve a particular way of reforming the Church is a very different thing. Erasmus and the Anabaptists agreed with Luther, Zwingli, and the other Protestant leaders that the Church was in need of reform, but the Anabaptists had much more in common with Erasmus as to how that was to be done than they did with the Reformers.
I.B. Horst, Erasmus, the Anabaptists and the Problem of Religious Unity
Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536) and Martin Luther (1483-1546) were, probably, the two most important reformers of the 16th century, but their understanding of the meaning of reform was quite different. Erasmus was Luther’s elder and senior by almost twenty years, and it was Erasmus, as some have said, that laid the egg that Luther hatched. The young Luther had an immense admiration for the fine Biblical translations that Erasmus had done, and Erasmus’ criticisms of the Roman Catholic Church were something that Luther (and many others) would nod a hearty Amen to without much reservation.
The year that Luther posted his 95 theses on the church door at Wittenberg (1517) was the same year that Erasmus, ironically enough, also published his classic missive, The Complaint of Peace. The Complaint of Peace is a sustained argument for peace and concord in opposition to those that separate and divide the church into different tribes and clans. Luther was on the verge and cusp of doing the very thing that Erasmus feared in 1517, although none suspected how far and deep the schism would go and last. The controversial publication of Erasmus’ Julius Exclusus was also published about this time. Luther was fully on board with this tract for the times that suggested that the warlike Pope Julius, after death and upon meeting Peter, would not be admitted through the gates into heaven. Such a stinging colloquy contra Julius placed Erasmus and Luther on the same page, and Luther used this colloquy in his defense at times.
The more the Roman Catholic loyalists tightened the knot around Luther’s neck, the more reactionary he became. Erasmus continued to defend Luther and his many valid and needful insights. He cautioned, again and again, the Roman Catholic Sanhedrin against cornering Luther. Sadly so, the light of Erasmus went unheeded as the heat between Luther and the Roman Catholic conservatives intensified. The publications in 1520 of Luther’s Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation concerning the Reform of the Estate (August 1520), The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (October 1520) and Of the Liberty of the Christian Man (November 1520) were a slap in the face to Leo X’s papal bull Exsurge Domine (June 15 1520). Luther went as far as to publically burn the papal bull (December 10 1520). When Luther did this, lines were, increasingly so, being drawn in the ecclesial sand. And yet, behind the scenes, Erasmus was still defending Luther and urging caution to the Roman Catholic leadership. Many Roman Catholics were turning against Luther, and since Erasmus was not doing so, they began questioning his loyalty to Rome. Erasmus paid a heavy price for continuing to walk by Luther’s side in 1520 and again in 1521 at the Diet and Edict of Worms (when Erasmus still, with reservations, attempted to see the good in Luther’s approach to theology). Erasmus’ patience was beginning to wear thin, though, by 1521 when he left for Basel. Luther was also becoming frustrated that Erasmus would only go so far down the trail with him.
Erasmus and Luther were both fully committed to the authority of the Bible, but it was becoming apparent in the early years of the 1520s that Luther’s interpretation of the Bible and his central focus on ‘justification by grace through faith’ was reductionistic. The fact that Luther thought (and demanded) that such a position of Biblical interpretation was the litmus test of an authentic understanding of Biblical authority and interpretation was not something that Erasmus could or would accept. It was becoming apparent that Luther’s notion and read of Paul was not the only read of Paul. Would Luther be willing to split the historic church over an interpretation of the Bible?
Erasmus continued to find common ground with Luther even up to 1524. The publication of Erasmus’ colloquy in March 1524, ‘An Examination of Faith’, is a dialogue between Aulus (Roman Catholic) and Barbatius (Lutheran) about the Apostles’ Creed. Aulus, like Erasmus, leads the discussion, and by dialogue’s end, it is quite clear that both Aulus and Barbatius agree on the Apostles’ Creed. There are hints of differences round the edges in the prologue and epilogue, but neither differ seriously on their assent to the Creed. Why then must the Roman Catholics and Luther part paths? Erasmus was committed to find the agreed upon esse (essence) of the church, and he was more than willing to recognize diversity of interpretations (in both the Bible and the Tradition) on issues the church could not agree upon. The Apostles’ Creed was of the esse of church life, Roman Catholics and Luther could agree upon it, so why the split and schism? ‘An Examination of Faith’ highlights the fact that Erasmus was still seeking to reconcile Luther with the Roman Catholic position by agreeing upon the Apostles’ Creed in 1524. Luther, though, insisted there was more to the essentials of the faith than the Apostles’ Creed and this is why, in the end, paths were parted. It was not a debate about the authority of the Bible or the importance of the Tradition—it was much more about that which was essential to the faith journey and that which was indifferent (adiaphora).
Many of Erasmus’ more moderate friends encouraged him to enter the fray in a way that questioned the path and direction of Luther’s exegesis and theology. Erasmus decided, in a rather irenical way, to challenge the heart of Luther’s emerging dogmatic theology. The publication in September 1524 of Erasmus’ Discourse on the Freedom of the Will went straight to the core of Luther’s exegesis and theology. Luther admitted that the text ‘seized him by the throat’. Erasmus argued, in Discourse on the Freedom of the Will, that humanity, although fallen and fallible, finite and prone to err, still had the ability to heed, hear and respond to the overtures of Divine Grace. Human will has vestiges of possibility, and there was still much good in humanity. Erasmus, faithful to the Biblical text, drew forth verse after verse that demonstrated his case that humans had enough freedom of will that they could chose or reject God and the Good. Luther knew that if Erasmus’ read of the Bible was accepted, his position was finished. It should be noted that the debate between Gospel-Law and Grace-Will was a tension that Erasmus was willing to live within, and he refused to tip his hat too far one way or the other---he keenly recognized verses could be drawn from the Bible that supported both positions, hence was willing to leave the answers to the issue in the realm of uncertainty and mystery. In short, excessively focussing on a definitive answer to such questions was not of the essence of the faith, and, more to the point, the church should never be split up over an issue that is neither definitive in the Creeds or the Bible. Luther insisted, though, that his read of the Bible was the only read, and his response to Erasmus made this abundantly clear.
Luther knew he had to respond with haste and thoroughness to, probably, the most important Biblical exegete and commentator of the 1520s in Europe. Luther turned on Erasmus with a hammer. On the Bondage of the Will was published in 1525, and Luther used verse added to verse in the Bible that confirmed his agenda. Needless to say, both men, given their thorough exegetical abilities, knew the Bible well, but they differed on what verses and passages they would use to support their cause and agenda. The protestant west has tended, sadly so, to genuflect to Luther and ignore or dismiss Erasmus. What has the West missed and lost in doing so? It is significant to note that both the Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions turned on Erasmus. On the Bondage of the Will had a profound impact on Calvin, and Calvin’s Institutes (1536) very much reflected Luther’s thoughts contra Erasmus. The clash between Luther-Erasmus is now part of reformation lore and legend. It must be noted that Erasmus did reply to On the Bondage of the Will in depth and detail, but this longer book, Hyperaspistes is routinely ignored. The tensions that Erasmus was willing to live with, Luther was not going to accept. Erasmus never denied the validity and reality of books, verses, texts and passages that Luther used--he merely pointed out that there were other passages, texts, books and verses that embodied another way of interpreting the Grace-Will issue and tension. The Bible, in short, for Erasmus was not a text of clear and distinct answers to the troubling dilemmas of life---for Luther, it was. It was these quite different approaches that underlay how both men approached the Bible and the Creeds of the church.
The tensions and eruptions in the 1524-1525 between Erasmus and Luther finally clarified why Erasmus would not follow Luther and why Luther turned his back on Erasmus. There is more to the tale, though, and it is this more that brings us to the final fray between the aging Erasmus and Luther in full stride.
Irena Backus, in her fine article, ‘Erasmus and the Spirituality of the Early Church’, rightly notes that the clash between Erasmus and Luther in 1534 ‘seems to have escaped historians’ attention so far’. Erasmus published a rather lengthy reflection on the Apostles’ Creed in 1533. Erasmus, being the nuanced Biblical exegete he was and, equally so, a gifted commentator on the Fathers of the Patristic Era (East and West) was cautious about forming solid and definitive conclusions on many interpretive issues. The level of interpretive uncertainty and ambiguity that did, at times, walk side by side with Erasmus was an anathema to Luther. Luther was, for the most part, convinced that his interpretation of the Bible was the real one, he questioned some of Erasmus’s reads of the Fathers and he thought Erasmus’ probes of the Apostles’ Creed was not sure footed enough. In short, Erasmus the man who knew how to walk on egg shells and not break them was the opposite of Luther who broke every egg shell he stomped on. Luther wrote a letter to Nicholas Amsdorf in 1534, and in the blistering letter he shredded Erasmus up one side and down the other. There are those who often, tirelessly, insist that Erasmus was not a theologian, and he was more concerned with ethics than theology. Those who take the time to read the detailed and elaborate reflection of Erasmus on the Creed of 1533 will realize Erasmus knew his theology well. But, the way Erasmus did exegesis and theology left room for different possible interpretations. This did not appeal to Luther (and those like him) who are convinced there is only one interpretation of the Bible (which is theirs).
Erasmus, the peacemaker and irenical visionary of the early 16th century, was in his late autumn years when Luther turned on him in 1534. Erasmus knew he had, as he had done before, to respond to the blows and challenges of Luther. The incisive and compact missive, Purgatio adversus Lutherum, took Luther to task at the level of certainty-mystery. Luther was an exegetical and theological ideologue and Erasmus was not. Erasmus was quite willing to acknowledge the fact that different ways of interpreting the Bible and Fathers did exist, and it was simply dishonest to reduce such complex material to one dimensional and single vision interpretations. Luther would and could not accept such an approach, and he was willing to split the church over the issue of interpretation. It is significant that Jerome and Augustine had a similar clash and tension in their time. Jerome and Erasmus had much more in common than both did with Augustine and Luther. But, the tensions and clashes between Jerome and Augustine did not mean that Augustine would divide the church over different interpretation of the Bible. The post-apostolic and Patristic Era did, indeed, have a diversity of Biblical interpretations (that, at times, was more about heat than light), Erasmus was more than aware of this (being both a Biblical and Patristic scholar), but Luther would not abide such a way of reading the Bible, Fathers or Creeds.
Erasmus died in 1536. The initial and final fray between Erasmus and Luther do point to two different ways of understanding the Christian journey----unity in the body of Christ but, in charity, pondering different ways of understanding the mystery of faith or definite and definitive ways of interpreting the Bible and Tradition that brooks little or no opposition. Erasmus embodies the former way, Luther the latter way. Sadly so, many in the church follow Luther rather than Erasmus, and the divided church is a child of such an ideological approach that violates and contradicts the very unity that the Bible, Fathers and Creeds hold high. Is this not the most tragic of all ironies?