Monday, February 21, 2011

Not Exactly A Knock-Down Drag-Out

[Y]our book struck me as so cheap and paltry that I felt profoundly sorrry for you, defiling as you were your very elegant and ingenious style with such trash, and quite disgusted at the utterly unworthy matter that was being conveyed in such rich ornaments of eloquence, like refuse or [shit] being carried in gold and silver vases.
Martin Luther, "The Bondage of the Will", a response to Desiderius Erasmus' "On The Freedom of the Will, A Diatribe", 1525
I first picked up Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation because, like much the rest of my library, I figured at some point I would turn to it to fill in the details, for more information, or general enlightenment. With my mind turning to the Reformation, I thought now would be a good time.

Two more different individuals one can hardly even imagine pitting against one another. Erasmus, the worldly satirist whose opinions on matters of faith were deeply held yet rarely surfaced; Luther, the voluble, passionate extremist; two such characters, if invented by a writer, would seem caricatures and an editor would probably demand something different. History is kind, however, and provides moments like this, if for no other reason than our entertainment.

As a matter of fact, the amount of theological light shed by both men on the questions of human freedom, grace, faith, and salvation is little indeed. Rather, what we do see is a clash of temperaments and styles, approaches not just to the specifics of theological dispute but some insight in to the personalities of each man. For that alone, the journey through the book was worth it.

Desiderius Erasmus was Luther's older contemporary. Renowned for his satirical attacks upon the leaders of the Church, for the scope of his learning, Erasmus is counted among the founders of northern European humanism in general, and a strain of Catholic humanism that stretches through the Jesuits right up to the Second Vatican Council. He was a man who appreciated the literature of antiquity, the arts, even - according to a quote Jacques Barzun includes in his From Dawn to Decadence - the habit English women seemed to display of kissing strangers. While highly critical of the excesses of the Roman hierarchy, he never went as far as Luther in his condemnations. Indeed, his arguments with the hierarchy were related as much to his preference for a quiet life, appreciating the glories of discovery and the beauties of art and literature and, apparently, English women as to the more abstruse matters of theology that Luther saw as the heart of the corruption of the Church.

With this in mind, it is the Preface of Erasmus' pamphlet that is by far the more important part. Luther's judgment, above, on the piece as a whole describes far more the latter part, in which Erasmus sets forth, rather half-heartedly (so it seem to me), various Scriptural passages regarding the freedom of the human will as regards our salvation. Far more important - and Luther recognizes it as well - is Erasmus' insistence that, in matters where dispute might well exist between persons of sincere faith and honest intent, his preference is, as he writes, to take the path of the Skeptics. Indeed, he sees in many matters - he mentions the Persons of the Trinity, the human and Divine natures within Christ, God's foreknowledge of contingent events - argument to be useless, adding more heat than light, and settles for the judgment of St. Paul in Romans 11, "How unsearchable are [God]s judgments and inscrutable his ways!" This preference for mystery over certainty in matters that are highly contentious is not only a personal one; he seems to be speaking directly to Luther in this regard. Rather than contend with the Church in these matters, and cast aspersions upon the faith and life of those whose opinions differ from his, a far wiser, more prudent course would be for Luther to address these matters in private, precisely because persons of good faith can disagree completely on all sorts of questions that still haunt the churches to this day.

Luther, whose life consisted of assertions against the authority of the hierarchy, the church councils, anyone who seemed to make the claim that salvation, efficacious through God's grace alone, in any way involved the individual as a partner in the process, would hardly consider a plea for restraint rooted in a preference for skepticism and a dislike of bold assertion where caution might better rule as anything other than cowardice or irreligion. In fact, he accuses Erasmus of both, although coming down pretty heavily in favor of the latter. His tone, as always, is rough; as one of the editors of this volume, E. Gordon Rupp, writes, Erasmus brought a rapier to this duel; Luther, a blunderbuss. Luther, for his part, sees the question of the freedom of the human will not as either a mystery upon which opinions can differ; nor does he see it as peripheral to a life of faith. Rather, Luther sees it as bound up with what was, for him, the central reality of the proclamation of the Gospel, salvation by grace through faith. To bypass claims on these matters out of a preference for peace for the mass of Christendom, Luther sees the choice as false. The peace would be, for him, the peace of the Devil, silencing the Gospel so that those who rule out of falseness can continue to do so.

These descriptions show the stark contrasts, not just in styles, but in personalities on display in these two pamphlets, by two giants of an age. While Erasmus surely would have been a marvelous manager of, say, a website like The Huffington Post, with his appreciation for all sorts of knowledge, his erudition, his wit, and his refusal to take himself too seriously, Martin Luther would make, in our day, an excellent troll on such a website. He baits, he praises, his ad hominems seem to flow effortlessly, and always with the insistence they are meant with the utmost respect. While not enlightening in any theological detail, the discussion in these pages surely ranks as an important document because we can gain some insight in to the minds of two figures who loom even over our own age.

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