It’s been said that Desiderius Erasmus laid the egg that Martin Luther hatched. What is generally meant by this statement is that in some mode or fashion, Luther took Erasmian ideas to their natural conclusion and birthed something from them. Using similar imagery, it could easily be said that the creature Luther hatched was the Protestant Reformation. But this still leaves us with the egg. What kind of egg did Erasmus lay? Furthermore, how did it breathe life into the Reformation? The answer lies in the common spirit that bonded both men in their efforts to reform the Catholic Church: Christian humanism. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, both men heralded the ad fontes (“to the sources”) battle cry of the Christian Renaissance. However, both also maintained distinct reasons for reaching back to the patristic sources.
Marjorie O’Rourke Boyle, in her work Rhetoric and Reform: Erasmus’ Civil Dispute with Luther, captures Erasmus and Luther’s interaction in its proper context: “The common assumption that their controversy was an exchange of differing ideas is erroneous. There was no exchange, no dialogue.” (42) While each humanist said much about the other, few ideas were ever actually “exchanged” between the two giants. They were, in essence, two loud voices of their age ringing in opposition to one another. However, Luther owed much to Erasmus. For instance, Erasmus’ 1516 Greek New Testament aided Luther in his Romans lectures and again at Wartburg as the basis for his German translation of the Bible. While Luther was not the classicist as were Zwingli and Calvin, his interest in the original languages was illustrative of the literary movement known as humanism. This humanist cause was not merely centered around their common enemy in the scholastics, but in a common quest to place the Word of God in the hands of the people. This of course provided the foundation for their combined critique of the Pope and the Catholic Church. Coupled with each man’s incredible whit and genius, a mutual respect arose between the two. For example, just before abrasively deconstructing Erasmus’ argument on free will in The Bondage of the Will, Luther reveals his admiration for Erasmus’ intellect and rhetoric: “I yield you a palm such as I have never yielded to anyone before; for I confess not only that you are far superior to me in powers of eloquence and native genius (which we all must admit, all the more as I am an uncultivated fellow who has always moved in uncultivated circles), but that you have quite damped my spirit and eagerness, and left me exhausted before I could strike a blow.” (138) In the “prince of the humanists” Luther clearly saw a formidable opponent. Erasmus was a legitimate critic of the moral conditions so ubiquitous in the Church at the time. Luther himself exposed the same kind of corruption in his Ninety-Five Theses, pointing the finger at inflated papal authority and its abuses. It was humanism that provided the lens with which both scholars viewed the Church that had strayed so far from its New Testament paradigm. While Luther consulted the original text of Scripture and the Church Fathers, it seemed that Erasmus did even more so. “Not only does Erasmus the humanist command more text than the scholastics, but also he consults the best patristic editions, some of which he himself has learnedly composed. Textual purity becomes a cardinal issue of the emerging humanism in theology.” (Erasmus on Language and Method in Theology, 14) However, between the two church skeptics, only one could be deemed a true theologian. In his biography of Luther, Walter von Leowenich expresses a fundamental difference between the two innovators: “The religious sincerity of Erasmus cannot be denied. He wanted a reform of the church that would abolish outward ceremonies and return to the simple Christianity which, in his opinion, Jesus had taught. But he did not have what it required to become a reformer. He was not a prophet, but rather a scholar who had the weaknesses of a scholar. Filled with a strong sense of vanity, his intellect outstripped his character. He did not have the religious depth of Luther.” (38) It could perhaps be said that Erasmus and Luther held distinct definitions of the word “religion.” And this becomes increasingly evident in each man’s letters and disputations.
Despite his own erudition, Erasmus distanced himself from the theologians of his day because of what he recognized as impracticality: “I do not mean to condemn modern theologians, but I am merely pointing out that in view of our purpose, namely a more practical piety, they are hardly to be recommended.” (Handbook of the Militant Christian, 72) In these few words we can catch a steady glimpse of Erasmus’ view for the ideal Christian: practical godly living. His moralistic view of Christianity forced him to distance himself not only from the Catholic clergy of his day but from the Reformers as well: “Just look at the Evangelical people, have they become any better? Do they yield less to luxury, lust and greed? Show me a man whom that Gospel has changed from a toper to a temperate man, from a brute to a gentle creature…I will show you many who have become even worse than they were.” (Cited from J. Huizinga, Erasmus and the Age of Reformation, 177) Luther was calling for a complete redefinition of Catholic soteriology, Erasmus was insisting upon a moral revolution. His reform was, in its strictest sense, an anthropological affair. The Christian was to live as a Christian. A new man was a new man inside and out. For both men, piety had ecclesiological implications. But for Erasmus, the heart of the issue was not biblical interpretation – it was about biblical living. The “prince of the humanists” even antagonized Luther for what he viewed as “passionate” attributes unbefitting a man of his standing in the church: “I received a totally insane letter from Luther. Is not the man ashamed to lie so impudently? And he promises even better things. What are men thinking about when they commit themselves and their fortunes to a man so much under the domination of his passions?” (P.S. and H.M. Allen, Opus epistolarum Des. Erasmi Roterodami, 2918) Luther’s attacks upon Erasmus concerned his theological misapprehension. Erasmus’ rebuttals, on the other hand, were focused upon behavior. Interesting to note is that never once did Erasmus refer to Luther as a heretic. However, he did not conceal the astonishment and pain inflicted by Luther’s cutting words. Erasmus was indeed a man concerned with godly living, and the remedy he believed was found in a return to the Bible and the Fathers. Istyan Bejczy does not mistake the scholar’s truest aim: “Erasmus’ main intention was not to expound ancient history but to appeal to his contemporaries for intellectual and moral improvement.” The improvement of man was the central aim of Erasmus: “If Luther champions the Pauline faith of Romans, Erasmus embodies the charity of Corinthians. He approves the idea of service by accommodation, of becoming ‘all things to all men’ (1 Cor. 9:22).” (14)
Still, in The Bondage of the Will, Luther praises Erasmus for his proper identification of the real issue in the entire Protestant controversy: “I praise and commend you highly for this also, that unlike all the rest you alone have attacked the real issue, the essence of the matter in dispute, and have not wearied me with irrelevancies about the papacy, purgatory, indulgences, and such like trifles…You and you alone have seen the question on which everything hinges, and have aimed at the vital spot; for which I sincerely thank you.” (169) This should come as no surprise considering two things: (1) Luther’s proper reverence for Erasmus’s intellect and (2) Erasmus’ consistent emphasis upon Christian responsibility for holy living. Erasmus himself was correct to attach the will to any issue of holiness. His shortcoming, according to Luther, was his lofty appraisal of human achievement and ability. Since Erasmus’ version of Catholic reform did not include theological overhaul, his commitment to papal authority remained unwavering. This is obvious in his discourse with Luther. In his Diatribe, he asks the “pope of Wittenberg”, “And you want us to go right ahead and believe that for so many centuries the gospel has been shrouded by Satan, that is now unveiled by you, and that there is no pure interpretation of Scripture anywhere but in Wittenberg?” (134) Here we are able to witness Erasmus’ resolve to remain faithful to Rome while refusing to exert his power of questioning upon the biblical definition of salvation. Likewise, Luther’s reply in The Bondage of the Will questions Erasmus’ definition of the church: “The church is hidden, the saints are unknown.” (168) Simply put, Luther was willing to go places that Erasmus was not. For this reason, it could be said that Luther was a “true” theologian while Erasmus remained a scholar of Christian ethics. Nevertheless, Erasmus’ vision for the Christian life was never compromised by the lack of holiness he witnessed all around him. “Erasmus – humanist, religious and Catholic – was expert par excellence on abuses in the Church. No ecclesiastic of his day wrote as strongly, bitterly, and independently on corruption, fraud, superstition and inauthenticity of any and every kind no matter where it was to be found.” (Luther, Erasmus, and the Reformation, 35) Next to the shadow of Luther, Erasmus’s legend can somehow seem diminutive. But what Reformation readers should remember is that without Erasmus, there may not have been a Martin Luther to remember. Christian humanism simply led Erasmus to an anthropological renewal rather than a theological one. Still, regardless of his ecclesiological miscues, Margaret Mann Phillips’ words ring true: “Erasmus is Erasmus, and can only be studied by himself.” (Luther, Erasmus, and the Reformation, 87)
While Christian humanism led Erasmus to seek a moral revolution, Martin Luther was led into his own revolution with the help of someone else: “Luther’s university reform was therefore determined only to a certain degree by humanistic ideas; more decisive was the motivation provided by the recovery of Pauline theology.” (Martin Luther: The Man and His Work, 104) Justification by faith alone provided the foundation for Luther’s theology. Instead of Erasmus’ Jerome, Luther found his sweetest divine truths buried in the Pauline epistles and St. Augustine. Again, Christian humanism provided a bulwark to battle the Dominican scholastics and Roman polemicists. However, Luther looked at Erasmus and found a skilled linguist still devoid of true theology: “not everyone is a truly wise Christian just because he knows Greek and Hebrew.” (Kritische Gesamtausgabe. Briefwechsel 1, 90, 22; AE 48, 40) As a matter of fact, on March 1, 1517, Luther wrote to Johann Lang, “I am reading our Erasmus but daily dislike him more and more…Human things weigh more with him than the divine.” (Kritische Gesamtausgabe. Briefwechsel 1, 90, 15; AE 48, 40.) Although Luther approved of Erasmus’ critique of monks and priests, he believed he did not sufficiently emphasize the grace of God in the achievements of man. Herein lies the difference between the modes of Lutheran and Erasmian reform. For Luther, change within the Church could only come from God alone. The scholar from Wittenberg carried a theocentric passion evident even to the “prince of humanists” himself: “However misled and violent he considered Luther to be, Erasmus always recognized in him a fierce sincerity and a true devotion to religion.” (Luther, Erasmus, and the Reformation, 96) It was that true religion that drove Luther to such vivid language regarding the beliefs of Erasmus. In a letter to Spalatin on November 1, 1524, Luther says, “It is unbelievable how much the book about the freedom of the will nauseates me; I have not yet read more than two pages. It is irksome for me to have to reply to such an educated man about such an uneducated book.” (Kritische Gesamtausgabe. Briefwechsel 3, 368, 29) The discourse between Luther and Erasmus bears witness to the fact that the two humanist rivals held two distinct motivations at the dawn of the Reformation. While one sought moral reform, the other sought to reform soteriology as a whole. Two men. Two faiths. One church.