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May 21, 2013


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Clarion Journal

Erasmus. Luther and F.D. Maurice

I hope your summer goes well and may your probes go ever deeper into the thought and life of Luther and Erasmus. Erasmus, in many ways, played a significant role in the Anglican tradition in the 16th and 17th centuries. There has a been a mixed reaction to Luther and Lutheranism in Anglicanism, but in the 19th century, F.D. Maurice walked a middle road in his appreciation of Luther and the Reformers.

There were those in the Anglican Church in the 19th century (Oxford Reformers and Newman) who thought the Reformed tradition of Luther and Calvin was the worst thing that happened to the church.

There were others who thought it was Luther and Calvin that rescued the church from a decadent catholicism. Many evangelical Anglicans of the 19th century had seriously distorted and thinned out the best of Luther’s insights.

F.D. Maurice was, probably, the most important Anglican theologian of the 19th century that argued that Luther should never be dismissed contra the reactionary Tractarians and Luther needed to be more properly honoured and understood contra the evangelical Anglicans. There is, therefore, much room for some meaningful and irenical discussion between Lutheran and Anglicans via the bridge building work of Maurice on Luther in the 19th century. And,
as you know, Anglicans and Lutherans are now in full communion. It is good to see the work of Erasmus working itself out in the theology of F.D Maurice and his appreciation of Luther. Again may you have a fine summer.

Fiat Lux

Ole Schenk

Dear Ron,

It will be valuable to spend much careful thought with Erasmus' De libero arbitrio. Because I'm travelling to Hungary soon with the Evangelical Lutheran church in America to teach English and serve as a parish worker with a Roma community for a year, I won't be able to continue this conversation in a truly sustained way. Here goes again for now!

Certainly, engaging the Erasmus and Luther traditions with attention to the fruits yielded from their discourse - peace or war - Erasmus looks all the better. He is without question an example of tireless efforts at mediation through discourse and civil understanding. I can't but grant you that. It pains me to think of what kind of celebration will be seen in 2017 on the anniversary of the Wittenberg door, whether rank triumphalism alone will prevail, or repentance for centuries of strife will also take its due place, risking such honest repentance for the sake of truth and without concern for the corresponding attitude (point-scoring or not) of the institutional Catholic church.

To allow for a conversation that brings an encounter, it is my role to maintain the strengths of the Lutheran tradition, to present them at their best and to resist caricature, while yet admitting the worst aspects.

To that end, I would submit that the theology of "justification of the sinner by grace through faith" need not be construed as narrowly individualistic or one-dimensional at all. While the content of the experience of justification-by-grace is specifically Christian, the phenomenology of that experience, the experience of that experience, is universal: goodness, beauty, peace, justice, and meaning are never themselves created out of human will and agency. At most we are placed in, and attuned to, events taking place outside of ourselves to which we are called into participation, and so transformed. The goodness is lost when it is claimed. The beauty of singing in the choir is lost and concealed when I am turned inward on my self-consciousness justifying my position within the choir by my works, just as a the justice of a society is distorted when the wealthy are turned inward to justifying their privilege and status by the seduction ideology of merit. In race relations, it is always a temptation for caucasians to curve inward in sensitivity or a hyper-consciousness of guilt when faced with criticism, rather than looking the First-Nations person in the eye and hearing what they say, following the word of peace through painful truth rather than seeking to justify or nullify yourself. Just as, in the content of the experience of the Gospel, our righteousness is misunderstood whenever it is sought inward by an act of will but found instead in the righteousness of God revealed through Jesus Christ, who even justifies and so rescues the ungodly. I'm saying all this to demonstrate how I would play my role in this dialogue as an imaginative and creative Lutheran, and as searching for the best of the tradition in multi-dimensional "practice of justification by grace through faith" rather than holding on reactively to a single church or a single 16th century monk.

I admit the point that Erasmus would consider Luther's use of the scriptures selective. In contrast to L., Erasmus stands in a broad tradition in open conversation with all the church fathers, including the Scholastics (although he was critical of them too, and of their Latin, correct?), and the whole canon of Scripture. In response, I would suggest that the issue could be construed- instead of broad vs. narrow, open vs. arbitrary/selective - as a question of whether the canon of Scripture is held together in a formal and institutional unity, or whether the unity of the Scriptures is determined by content. So long as the content determines what is at issue, then James on justification and Galatians on justification cannot be reconciled; one must overcome the other. If faith is truly Christ, standing outside of ourselves in our prison (Galatians 5:23), can faith be "brought to completion by [our] works,"? Can one divide up the phenomenon of faith, or carve it into segments of varying gradients and degrees of strength? One can do so with an analogy of human love, or eros, but can one do so with God's agape? Since it is the proclamation of the completed work of Christ that first opens the alienated person to the Scriptures at all, then yes, in my opinion in agreement with Luther, the content of the message of Galatians on justification must overcome James, which construes faith reductively as an assent to doctrine, rather than Christ himself, as Galatians does. It is probably too much to say that James is an "epistle of straw," however, or to deny the value of that work. The question is whether one must foreground content ahead of formal canonicity, or whether formal and institutional canonicity sets the agenda for content.

I'm not able to speak on the writings of Philip Melancthon, sadly, without doing some serious research. I look forward to the chance to read more Erasmus, and to discuss this further with you.

In the peace of Christ, and in prayer for the unity of the church,


Clarion Journal

Dear Ole,

I think you are heading in a fine direction in pointing out the notion that “curvatus in ce” (or the bondage of the will) does much to define Luther as does “justification-by-grace-through-faith”. Erasmus never objected to these insights as partial truths that could be justified and observed from the human condition, history and a close reading the Bible. But, there was more. Obviously, the publication in September 1 1524 by Erasmus of Discourse on Free Will clarified Erasmus’ more subtle and complex read of the human condition, history and Scripture. It might be valuable for you to do a thorough read of Discourse on Free Will---it’s but a missive but much is packed into the booklet. Luther, of course, replied the following year with Bondage of the Will.

The debate heated up and went much further and deeper after 1525.

Erasmus would agree, like Luther, that both Scripture and the Sacraments must speak to us, address us, transform us, call forth our inner being to participate in the new life in God, the church and world. Erasmus differed with Luther on the texts and content that Luther chose to use and exegete to illustrate his theological drift and direction. Erasmus thought that Luther was excessively selective in the texts he chose to use to justify his position and what did not fit the agenda was either dismissed or subordinated (see the book of James for example). I’d be interested to know how you see Melancthon as attempting to build a bridge between Luther-Erasmus and the way Martin Chemnis (2nd Martin) reinforced the problem.

Erasmus was the peacemaking primate of Europe-England and beyond in the early decades of the 16th century in a way Luther never was. Erasmus took such a position from a close reading of the Bible-Fathers and his life in Christ and the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. It might be interesting to examine and explore why Erasmus became the peacemaker he did and Luther never did--can bridges be built between Erasmus and Luther? Erasmus certainly walked the extra mile to do so in his day--did Melancthon accomplish the task in his ethos?--I’d appreciate your insights on Luther-Melancthon-Erasmus.

Fiat Lux
Ron Dart

Ole Schenk

Hi again,

I'm not a theologian or a historian of the required subtlety or even wide-reading to give you a fair answer, but your series opened a project of thought for me. That's refreshing. It would take a lot of thinking about Erasmus and his tradition, and careful reading, to respond. It may be that a reconciliation isn't possible without kind of forcing either party to say something they can't, but surely the sides can at least listen to each other and find things revealed through that dialogue that would otherwise remain concealed.

My self-understanding as a Christian is really shaped by Lutheran theology and preaching, and thus sin for me is located in the "curvatus in ce," the being-curved-in-on-yourself, and faith is located in standing-outside-yourself by the Word of Christ, and all of that spirituality is tied to the notion of the bound will.

It's important for us on the Lutheran side to side to hear that the Pauline texts offer more than justification-by-grace-through-fatih. It's also important to hear that this same theology can become reductionistic and narrowly individualistic.

The constructive question Lutherans have for those in the Erasmus tradition might be something like asking what them what it means for the Scriptures to speak to us, or whether, on the other hand, we are left with only the meanings our reason finds in the Scriptures. For Luther, the root of all the cantankerousness and controversy, on basically all the fronts he has, is in this question of what it means that the Scriptures speak "to you," what it means that the sacraments are given "for you." And the answer he has is that the external words, i.e. "you are forgiven" and the external signs, i.e. "this is the body of Christ given for you" create faith, in a perlocutionary sense of language. I'm not sure (but I fully admit that I'm totally a beginner here) what Erasmus has in his reasonable humanism has to say about the creative power of language, or whether for him it's either an object to study and upon which to comment, and on the other hand, a high art of rhetoric to cultivate and and a tool to persuade. That's how I would provisionally put the question constructively from the Lutheran side to Erasmus.

I'm heavily influenced in what I'm saying here by the book "Martin Luther's Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation" by Oswald Bayer, which devotes a lot of time to identifying the core of the Lutheran reformation in the perlocutionary sense of language rather than a narrowly contingent individual insight or a even a narrowly historical controversy with the catholic church.

Ron Dart

Dear Ole,

I appreciated your irenical approach to the Erasmus-Luther issue. Do you think Erasmus-Luther can be reconciled? They certainly parted paths in their time and ethos. Melancthon did his best to build a healing bridge between Erasmus and Luther. How might this be done today? Could it have been done in the 16th century?

Ole Schenk

Thank you for this.

Following up on enthusiasm for Erasmus and especially his hermeneutics and approach to Scripture with its implications for peace theology seems to run into a lack of accessible collections of his writings on those topics (collections of his letters, The Praise of Folly, and even the Handbook of a Christian Prince are more readily available than any essays on interpretation.) There is the magisterial University of Toronto collected Works, but it's not something the average Bible-reading Christian can simply delve into.

I could object to the characterization of Luther's "justification by faith" as "one-dimensional" (see Oswald Bayer's "Luther: A Contemporary Interpretation" or even Gerhard Ebeling's "Luther: An Introduction to his Thought") but to say more than simply note the objection would be petty. Erasmus is a great example and deserves wider reading!

Peace of Christ

(from an ecumenically-minded Lutheran)

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