Friday, March 28, 2008

Luther and Erasmus


Erasmus was a strong and biting critic of the corruptions in the Western Church in the years prior to the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation. Erasmus was an a Monk and a priest, but most of his life was spent in academic study and translations. He did much to make the Greek New Testament available in the West.

Martin Luther certainly benefited from Erasmus, who did much to lay the groundwork for the coming reform. Luther's Ninety-five Theses touched on matters and corruptions that Erasmus had also written about. When the storm broke on Luther, Erasmus was sympathetic to Luther and what he was saying. In 1519 he wrote in a letter to Luther:

"My Dearest Brother in Christ, — Your letter in which you show no less your truly Christian spirit than your great abilities, was extremely acceptable to me. I have no words to tell you what a sensation your writings have caused here. It is impossible to eradicate from people's minds the utterly false suspicion that I have had a hand in them, and that I am the ringleader in this faction, as they call it. Some thought an opportunity had been given them of extinguishing literature, for which they cherish the most deadly hatred, because they are afraid it will cloud the majesty of their divinity, which many of them prize before Christianity. The evil weapons which they use are vociferation, rash assertion, tricks, detraction, and calumny. I have assured them I have never read your books, and that I therefore neither sanction nor condemn anything you have said. I have advised them not to bellow so fiercely in public before reading your books, especially when the author's life is universally well spoken of; but all to no purpose. You have friends in England, and among them men of the greatest eminence, who think most highly of your writings. Even here there are some who favor you. There is at Antwerp a prior of a monastery, a man of pure Christian life, who loves you immensely; he declares he was once a disciple of yours. He is almost the only one who preaches Christ; the rest generally preach either human fables or their own gain."

Time and again Erasmus defended Luther to high ranking officials in both Church and state, but he was always careful to keep himself outside of the tempest that raged around Luther. Let's look at some of Erasmus' early letters concerning Luther.

As early as December 1517 in a letter to Wolsey, Lord Chancellor of King Henry VIII and also a Cardinal in the Church, he wrote "The life of this man is universally praised. Even his enemies find nothing to condemn..."

In 1519 he wrote to Cardinal Archbishop Albrecht, of Mainz: "I do not see that any honest man takes the least offense at his writings. I say not that everything is assented to, but that he is read in the same spirit with which we read Cyprian or Jerome; that is, taking much with indulgence. I neither condemn nor vindicate him. Even his enemies praise him as an upright man. Finally, I believe it is Christian to wish Luther well in his way, that if he is innocent he should not be put down by the rabbles of the bad; but if he errs he should be put right, not destroyed. For that is more in accord with the pattern of Christ, who, as the prophet says, will not break the broken reed. I wish that every breast in which there is a spark of evangelical doctrine be not crushed, but instructed, and brought back fully to proclaim the honor of Christ."

In a 1519 letter to Philip Melanchthon, Luther’s protegee, he wrote, “Everybody finds Luther's life blameless; concerning his doctrine there is a difference of opinion. While it becomes those learned in divine things to instruct, now it is quite otherwise; for they compel, they destroy, they wipe out. They wish that Luther be imprisoned and destroyed. They are more like hangmen than men instructed of God."

As time progressed, Luther responded to those who wished "that Luther be imprisoned and destroyed" with growing ferocity. Violent language flew from Catholics and Protestants alike and Luther was right there with them and at times leading the pack in vehemence. As time progressed Erasmus and Luther grew apart. The agreed on the corruptions of the Church at their time, but as the break became more and more apparent, Erasmus stood back from the fray.

In the 1520's he and Luther finally crossed swords on the doctrine of predestination and free will. In 1524 Erasmus wrote De libero arbitrio diatribe sive collatio (Freedom of the Will or The Diatribe). Luther responed with the great work from the period on the doctrine of Predestination titled, The Bondage of the Will.

In 1526 Erasmus reponded to Luther. In the doctrinal debate I agree with Luther on this issue, but I also believe that Erasmus is correct in his response when he wrote, "Your bitterness in writing, your itch for calumniation, your biting jokes and mockeries against all who do not receive your dogmas, make us to miss in you the Spirit of Christ." In this criticism of Luther, Erasmus is correct. Luther, by the tone and anger in his writtings, did much to damage the good that he sought to accomplish.

Luther was not the only one guilty of having an ungodly and violent tone in his writings, such was the case for many of the "Christians" on all sides. The tone of the polemicists then did much to damage the cause of Christ at the time. The same is no less true today!

We have far less of an excuss when we are ugly to others when we're engaged in doctrinal "discussions" with those who disagree with us. We MUST be longsuffering with those within the Church with whom we disagree. Doctrinal dissagreement is a very poor reason to attack a brother or sister in Christ, not to mention an unbeliever in need of Christ's salvation.

Coram Deo,

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