Luther vs. Erasmus on Scripture — Round 2

Erasmus, over and against Luther’s understanding concerning the authority of Sacred Scripture, places great importance on the interpretation of the church fathers concerning the Holy Scriptures.  Before Erasmus begins his discussion on the inspiration of the Holy Spirit upon Scripture, he first discusses the authority of the church fathers.  He writes,

Nevertheless I wish to remind the reader, if he thinks we are holding the scale to Luther’s, with our scriptural passages and firm reasoning, that he now visualize in addition the entire long list of most erudite men who have enjoyed the approval of many centuries up to the present day, and among whom most have distinguished themselves by an admirable knowledge of Scripture, and commended themselves by their piety. Some gave their lives as testimony to the teachings of Christ which they had defended in their writings. Such among the Greeks are: Origen, Basil, Chrysostom, Cyril, John Damascene and Theophylactus; among the Latins: Tertullian, Cyprian, Arnobius, Hilary, Jerome and Augustine.[1]

Erasmus continues to cite Scholastic theologians.  He offers this list to preface his argument before he begins to assert that he maintains a high view of the Scriptures. He further argues that Scripture cannot contradict itself because it has the same Spirit as the author.  However, he writes this hagiography in respect to the tradition that he continues to hold over and against Luther.  Inevitably, Erasmus argues not against Luther, but against the authority and independence of Sacred Scripture.  He continues his love for the authority of the church saying,

At this point someone may object: What is the need of an interpreter when Scripture itself is quite clear? If it is really so clear, why have all the excellent people here acted like blind men for so many centuries, especially in so important a matter as my opponents hold it to be?[2]

This statement gives ground for Luther to scold Erasmus with the question,

 What do you mean, Erasmus? Is it not enough to have submitted your judgment to Scripture? Do you subject it to the Church as well?-why, what can the Church settle that Scripture did not settle first?[3]

Erasmus Scriptural interpretation relies upon the church fathers because he believes that the Scriptures must be interpreted by man for they are unclear in themselves.  Luther confesses the Spirit as the interpreter of Scripture by means of Scripture.  Erasmus on the other hand argues that the basis of his doctrine is on the interpretations of man, which can err.

On the surface, Luther and Erasmus seem to agree on the purpose of Scripture.  Erasmus confesses that Scripture desires nothing but conversion, ardor, and improvement.[4] Luther would confess that Scripture is for conversion because it is the Word of God and therefore it is the revelation of God’s will, which is not the death of the sinner, but that all may live.[5] However, looking deeper into the theology of the two men, one can see the distinction in what they believe Scripture does.

Luther had a theology of Christ, whereas Erasmus had a philosophy of Christ.  Erasmus was more interested in the practice of Christian piety and religion itself than the theology of the office of work of Christ.[6] This is displayed in what the Scriptures are to do, meaning, what is the purpose of the Holy Scriptures.  Why did God inspire men to write the Sacred Writings?  In his section on the essence of Christian piety, Erasmus explains the life of the Christian saying,

If we are on the road to piety, we should continue to improve eagerly and forget what lies behind us; if we have become involved in sin, we should make every effort to extricate ourselves, to accept the remedy of penance, and to solicit the mercy of the Lord.[7]

Erasmus is concerned with the piety of man and man’s increase in good moral living.  He subordinates the doctrine of a sinful man who relies on the mercy of God.  Instead, Erasmus proclaims a man who is ever increasing toward holiness.  What is the point of Scripture then?  The purpose of Scripture is to guide the individual in good pious living in order to be like Christ, Christ becomes example instead of savior.  If Christ is example, then the sinful man must die on the cross as Christ did, instead of receiving the gifts of the atonement.

Luther contradicts the notion of an improvement in piety with his proclamation of the bondage of the will.  He compares fallen man to a beast upon which either the devil or God is riding him. [8] Luther later proclaims that God “desires that all men should be saved, in that He comes to all by the word of salvation, and the fault is in the will which does not receive Him.”[9] Salvation is the outcome of Holy Scripture for Luther. For Luther, the Word of God comes to man in order that he may receive Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of his sin and the salvation of his soul.  Erasmus desires piety; Luther confesses salvation.

Both of these men agree that the Holy Spirit inspired the scriptures.  They both agree that the scriptures are the highest authority revealed to man from God.  However, they are two theological warriors battling over the clarity of Scripture. Wherein Luther and his clear Christocentric interpretation militates against Erasmus who believes that much of Scripture is hidden for many things are hidden in the majesty of God.  Luther makes a vital distinction that Erasmus does not.  Luther differentiates between God hidden and God revealed, or God and his Scriptures.[10] Because he makes the distinction between God and his Scriptures, Luther can confess that there is much hidden in God, but there is nothing hidden in his revelation.  Because of Christ all Scripture is revealed to man and is clear for the proclamation of the gospel.

What distinguishes Luther from Erasmus is that Luther holds fast to the principle that the Holy Scripture is clear and has one meaning in those statements that are decisively important, even though some dark passages remain.[11] Robert Preus defines the difference between Luther and Erasmus. He says of Erasmus,

Erasmus simply does not value the Word of life and salvation, which Scripture brings poor sinners.  Erasmus simply does not know and understand the tremendous importance for every lost sinner to know that the scriptures are clear.[12]

Luther confessed the clarity of Scripture because Christ embodies all of Holy Scripture.  He pried open the seals that were shut and revealed the will of God, which is that all men be saved.  Luther therefore takes the Holy Scripture and proclaims them in clarity for the edification of every troubled conscience.  On the other hand, Erasmus desires a more pious Christian life.  He is not as much concerned with the proclamation of the death and resurrection of Jesus for the forgiveness of sin, but for the preaching of the life of Jesus to exhort people in good moral living.

As shown above, both of these men had some agreements on aspects of the mysteries of Holy Scripture.  Both held the Scriptures in high regard, yet they disagreed on their clarity.  If one maintains that the Scriptures are unclear, then the interpretation of Scripture falls under the authority of the interpreter. In the case of Erasmus interpretation of Scripture held more closely to the traditions of the church fathers and less on Lutheran hermeneutics of Scripture interpreting Scripture. Luther held that because of Christ and the giving of the Holy Spirit, all of the Scriptures have been unlocked and therefore are clear for the proclamation of the forgiveness of sin.  Their opposing views on the clarity of Scripture created irreconcilable differences concerning the will of man.  The issue between Erasmus and Luther in 1525 was not the will of man, but more so the clarity of God’s revelation to his creation. Because of this issue both men had differing confessions on the will of man, the office and work of Christ, and the will and foreknowledge of God.

[1] Erasmus, Desiderius. 13

[2] Erasmus, Desiderius. 16

[3] Luther, Martin. 68.

[4] Erasmus, Desiderius. 34

[5] Luther, Martin 73

[6] Aldridge, John. The hermeneutic of Erasmus 41

[7] Erasmus, Desiserius. 8-9

[8] Luther, Martin.  103-104.

[9] Luther, Martin. 171

[10] Luther, Martin. 71

[11] Bayer, Oswald.  Martin Luther’s Theology  83

[12] Preus, Robert.  Doctrine is Life. 270-271


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