Theology Battle: Luther vs Erasmus

I get weirdly excited whenever I read about two theology legends having a showdown.  I probably shouldn’t.  It almost never ends well for one of them (see anyone who debated anything against Augustine), but seeing these legendary ideasmiths meet on the field of battle feels like a larger-than-life moment.  I guess it’s the theology geek’s equivalent of having an action movie with a showdown between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dwayne Johnson; you know someone has to lose the exchange, but you’re gonna buy that ticket.

Recently, I’ve been poking around in Luther’s history and it turns out he had a showdown with the humananist scholar, Erasmus!  Today, Erasmus isn’t seen as in the same league as Luther, but in his time, he was a huge deal.  He was one of the most published authors in Europe, an international theological scholar, and a strong advocate for reform in the church.  Little did he know, Luther would experience a meteoric rise and end up eclipsing him in each of those categories.  Luther would be the author that legitimized the printing press, the scholar that would give a massive theological school it’s foundational logic, and the reformer that would kick off Protestantism.

Erasmus first heard about Luther when a mutual friend passed on a critique.  George Spelatin told him that an Augustinian monk friend of his was concerned about the way that he framed works and original sin in his translation of the New Testament.  At the time, Erasmus didn’t think much of it. And reasonably so! Imagine a young professor at the rinky-dinkiest community college sending a Harvard professor their critiques.  That’s the modern day equivalent.  But as time went on, Luther’s star rose and Erasmus’s waned.  Before too long, Erasmus wrote a book attacking Luther’s understanding of free will (De Libero Arbitrio) and Luther was the one to ignore the critique.  He said it was “an unlearned book from such a learned man,”(Brand Luther, p. 233) and didn’t bother to respond for five years.  When he finally did respond with his own book, Erasmus churned out another response as quickly as he could, but Luther just ignored him.  The once-mighty Erasmus was old news.

What happened? Why couldn’t these two fans of church reform get on the same page? And how did Luther crush him so easily?

Fans of both men paint their inability to cooperate as a matter of temperament.  Luther was a bombastic, larger-than-life fighter.  He was happy to verbally obliterate the church hierarchy when they were wrong, and he would fight until the end for what he thought was right.  He was also always finding ways to reach out to the everyman.  His bestselling pamphlets boiled down complicated theological ideas into little papers that anyone could read.  He was a parish priest as well as an academic.  To detractors, he was a populist demagogue, and to fans, he was a fiery prophet of the people. Either way, he was an unrelenting fighter, willing to give everything for what he loved.  To him, Erasmus was a naïve coward, hiding in an ivory tower:

[Erasmus is] not concerned for the cross but for peace thinks that everything should be discussed and handled in a civil manner and with a certain benevolent kindliness.
(Letter from Luther to Spalatin, Sept 9, 1921, as quoted in Brand Luther, 231)

Erasmus, on the other hand, was more moderate, patient, and renowned for his cleverness.  He wrote big books for people that were educated enough to read them.  His legendary wit was his best tool for reform.  He railed against the corrupt priesthood in veiled satire, and he wrote in Latin or Greek (the languages of the educated).  Even though he agreed with Luther on some points, he never entertained splitting from the Catholic Church.  This was his home.  He wouldn’t break from tradition and the path that the Fathers had passed down (even if things had gotten a bit muddled).  To him, Luther was a tradition-killer who was willing to warp all of Christianity to his will:

You stipulate that we should not ask for or accept anything but Holy Scripture, but you do it in such a way as to require that we permit you to be its sole interpreter, renouncing all others. Thus the victory will be yours if we allow you to be not the steward but the lord of Holy Scripture. (Hyperaspistes, Book I, Collected Works of Erasmus, Vol. 76, pp. 204–05.)

Naturally, two men as different as this would come to different conclusions about the right course of action in the face of religious corruption.

There are lots of other differences between these two that could be key as well.  One emphasized the power of God, the other focused on the capacity of men.  One signaled an emerging nationalist sentiment, the other was an international figure.  One divided the church over doctrine, while the other longed for internal reform. 

In modern conversation, I’ve noticed that this showdown is heavily politicized.  Liberal readers associate Erasmus with some kind of proto-secularism that emphasized behavior over religious doctrine, while they see Luther as a small-minded populist.  More conservative readers see Luther as a man of integrity, standing for religious liberty, and Erasmus as a sniveling puppet of the bureaucracy, happy to speak in safe, smart circles about how he’d like change, but too cowardly to do anything that put him at risk.  Frankly, both views reek of more interest in modern politics than the Christian past.  Like him or not, Erasmus legitimized Luther and paved the way for the Reformation with his cries about corruption and demands for reform.  Even if he never jumped ship, he was crucial. You lose a key player in the religious landscape of the time if you cut him out. And a 15th century medieval priest like Erasmus said and did things that would make a modern secular humanist cringe.  A lot of his complaints were also echoed and escalated by Luther. These people are from their own times, not ours.  Modern caricatures equating these two to modern political stances are almost always inaccurate and lazy.

But I suppose we all have to understand their story on terms that make sense to us.  I’m still wrestling with their little scuffle myself!  Strangely, I feel closer to Luther, but I imagine I’d probably get along better with Erasmus.  Part of that is probably Protestant pride.  Sola scriptura and all that, right?  Luther’s reputation certainly hasn’t hurt him either.  He’s a hero! There’s something admirable about risking your life for what you believe.  Luther putting his blood on the line makes Erasmus’s scathing quill look kinda wimpy in comparison.  On the other hand, it’s hard to not lament over the divisions in Christianity, and Luther decisively struck the blow that would shatter the establishment.  Was it worth it?  Was Rome so irredeemably corrupt that division was the only solution with any integrity? Or was Erasmus an unheard prophet for unity that the reformers desperately needed to hear?

I’m not sure where I fall in the end. I love so many of the gifts that Protestantism has brought, but I lament the divisions that came with it.  Both men are heroes in their own right, even if only one made it to popular history books. Luther definitively won the day and brought so many wonderful things, but maybe Erasmus’s cry for tradition and unity needs to be heard today by the thousands of denominations that represent the children of the Reformation.

If you want to know more about these two, check out Andrew Pettegree’s Brand Luther or Michael Massing’s Fatal Discord.

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