Thursday, March 09, 2006

My Take on Erasmus

Josh S. has just put up his comments on Erasmus's Diatribe against Luther on the question of free will at Here We Stand.

I wrote the following comments about Erasmus's diatribe on Chris Park's now defunct Scopos blog (he seems to start them up and then delete them every couple of months or so). The page numbers are keyed to a different edition than Josh S. used, one by Ernst Winter which is now out of print. I should also note that in his introduction Prof. Winter is obviously more sympathetic to Erasmus than to Luther, and that Erasmus is presented in full and Luther only in selections. So one would assume the translation does him justice. (I've read Luther on the Bondage of the Will in the J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston translation.)

Having reread Erasmus's Diatribe over the weekend, I found my opinion well confirmed. It is execrable stuff. As a kindly, avuncular, yet professorial popular moralist he is a great writer, and even a solid thinker. But his work is an perfect illustration of why "moralism" is a bad word when speaking of Christian theologians.

In my following points, I am not being at all original. I find virtually every reaction I have is one that I remember reading in Luther's reply.

First, let me note: nowhere in the quotation you cited, and nowhere in the Diatribe is there any clear, ringing statement about what freedom Christ wins us. In fact apart from some perfunctory agreement with the Reformers' words on p. 80 (Ernst Winter's translation), he never speaks of rebirth, of release from bondage to sin, death, and the devil, of being made free by Christ. In a
Christian discussion of the will, this is inexcusable. Absolutely inexcusable.

Secondly, he speaks of grace, and even defines it, according to the scholastics (pp. 28-30), but whenever he speaks clearly of the role of grace that cooperates with the will, he seems to be speaking of common grace with which we are born (p. 86, 49, 68, etc.) Christ is referred to but only as the creator, p. 68, not as our redeemer from slavery (yes, he refers to "redeeming" or "redemption" as a word here and there, but in his argument he does nothing with it).

Thirdly, he simply flatly denies Paul on the purpose of the law. "No one is justified by the law, rather by the law we become conscious of Sin," "The law is the pedagogue to lead us to Christ," "Once I was alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came sin sprang to life and I died." Where even once does Erasmus agree with this? Rather at every point, he believes that the purpose of the law, whether natural, that of good works, or of faith (p. 24) is to make people actually better. Even philosophers can obtain through natural law can obtain some true love of God without Christ at all (pp. 27-28).

Fourthly, he clearly, if covertly, classified Scripture as simply "exhortation and persuasion", not as the foundation of true doctrine. Let's look how he does it. On p. 92, he divides Christian literature into two types. In "exhortation and persuasion" exaggeration is acceptable: to the discouraged you ascribe everything to free will, to the proud you ascribe everything to God's grace. But in "investigation of truth" exaggeration is not allowable. Yet throughout his discussion of the Bible, he claims that phrases like "without Me you can do nothing" (p. 67), "every hair on your head is numbered" (pp. 75-76) or "Oh man who art thou to reply to God?” (p. 50) are simply exaggeration for effect. Where does this put Scripture? In the category of moral preaching directed solely to a "free will." Where is there "discussion of the truth"? Among the Fathers, the scholastics, among the philosophers (I am sorry if I am beginning to sound like a fundamentalist ranter but this is the kind of thing that makes the most violent sort of fundamentalist rage seem fitting.) Indeed apart from this reading as a kind of second-rate devotional literature he seems to find little use for Scripture: "It is a fact that the Holy Scriptures is in most instances either obscure or figurative, or seems, at first sight, to contradict itself" (p. 94). For this reason he must use his hermeneutic of all passages being either moral exhortation to diligence or else dissuasions to arrogance.

Fifthly, he says he is as uninterested as he possibly can get away with in assertions about the things of God (p. 6). This lack of interest in assertions comes in his believing that so many issues have not really been decided clearly, including not just Reformation era debates, but the Trinity, the two persons in Christ, and so on (p. 9). He even admits if he thought the Church taught wrongly, he would rather let it slide, rather than cause trouble (p. 11). Contrast this to what truly Christian writers (like Luther) know as the essence of Christianity: it is assertions upon which one will stake one's life: Christ died for your sins; Christ is the only-begotten Son of God; you are dead in your trespasses and sins; believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved; be baptized and wash away your sins; this cup is the new covenant in my blood.

And sixthly, he goes so far as to countenance dishonesty in teaching in the church, so as to keep the mob, the rabble, from getting out from under the knout of the Law (pp. 11-12). What is that but to admit either that what is taught in the church has nothing to do with salvation (since after all, its only certain content is moral law) or else that the common herd is incapable of salvation. Perhaps that is why he posits the soul and spirit of the philosophers--the pagans!--as the honorable part of human nature, the one which does not need redemption (pp. 63-64).

I am sorry to land a steaming pile of (not very original) evangelical denunciation on your weblog, but you
did ask for comments. The only thing to add to what Luther already said about Erasmus, is what we've learned in the last few centuries. People like him -- they go under the name of "broad churchmen," "latitudinarians," "modernists," "liberals" and they use slogans like "doctrine divides, mission unites", "pastoral sensitivity", and "possibility thinking" -- kill churches, if they are allowed to do so. May it never be!

Cross-posted at Here We Stand.