Is it Time to Reconsider Luther?

The following article was written by our friend and contributor, Abrosia De Milano:

Maybe protestants have followed the wrong Reformer. Was it truly Martin Luther whom God called out of the malaise of the Renaissance to correct His church and lead a new movement back to the true church? Can an argument be made that it was Erasmus, one who never left the Roman Catholic Church, who was the true torch-bearer of reform?

Erasmus can be called the Renaissance Man, par excellence. He embodied
the time in that he was at once scholar, humanist, monk; he was a humorist, linguist; a genius, if any ever existed, and an advocate of peace between people—even of peace towards his enemies.


Erasmus’ work The Complaint of Peace reminds the reader that Jesus had spoken the
imperative “Blessed are the Peacemakers.” He did not hide behind the excuse that the state had a right of self-defense, and that Christians ought to support war. Erasmus writes, “No greater enemy of goodness or of religion can be found.”

Humanism—not the secular humanism that rejects God—was the mark of Erasmus’ intellectual endeavors. It was not that man was the measure, but that God had endowed humanity with great gifts. These gifts had to be recognized, and drawn out to see the full glory of God that dwells in humanity. He followed the great tradition of the Dutch humanists. This led his work to be marked by an irenic spirit, one that seeks peace and reconciliation, in contrast with Luther’s fury.

It can be said that Erasmus would be one to whom Kant might say “Understanding is sublime, wit is beautiful” (From Kant’s Of the Beautiful and the Sublime). This could not be said of Luther.

Luther was seeking to overwhelm the perceived ignorance of his opponents with scalding critique. He sought to maintain enmity, rather than find common ground with which to carry on intellectual conversation. Calvinist scholar R. C. Sproul writes this of Luther, “The first key to Luther’s profile is found in his tempestuous outbursts of anger and his intemperate language. He was fond of calling his critics ‘dogs’. . . . his language was at times earthy, salted with scatological references” (The Holiness of God, p. 75).

Is this intemperate one, this man who used insult and invective to blast his intellectual and theological opponents, the Chosen One of the Reformation? Perhaps this title was given too easily to such a one as Luther. Maybe it is time Protestants (and Baptists, and other evangelicals) rethought Luther. Maybe it is time to transfer the reins of our faith to a man of peace, one of those opponents whom Luther engaged as one engages a hated enemy. Maybe it is time to consider Erasmus as the True Reformer—or to look elsewhere altogether—as to the one whom God truly called to speak out the abuses and sins of the established church of the 16th century.

  1. #1 by Ambrosia de Milano on July 30, 2007 - 11:31 pm

    Christian Beyer–I guess you’ll always be Christian?

  2. #2 by Christian Beyer on July 30, 2007 - 11:42 pm

    Heh, heh. At first Abrologio, I was thinking that your prose may have been just a tad purple, but then I remembered the bumper sticker; “In Case of Rapture this Vehicle will be Without an Operator”.

    My brother in law, a very conservative, fundamentalist evangelical (whew! what a mouthful) is waiting impatiently for the second coming, when he and his family and hopefully many of his friends will meet the Lord in the air. There is a sense of despair and hopelessness for this planet and by association his life as well. He looks forward to the day when the non-believers and the sinners will get their cumuppence. In spite of this, he is still a pretty good guy.

    Of course the problem here is that Christ said the we were going to be in for a big surprise. I’d wager that there are going to be some pretty disappointed fans of Jenkins and LaHaye.

  3. #3 by Ambrosia de Milano on July 30, 2007 - 11:43 pm

    Hello again, Steve.

    I think it is a simplification to say “Gnostics prefered spirit to flesh.” Gnosticism, as I understand it from Dodd’s The Fourth Gospel, is similar to Plato’s view of God. That behind the scenes of what we see is God, whom we cannot know or see. The ones doing the work are the Arcons (demigogues or demigods) who act on behalf of the will of the universe, or God behind the scenes.

    James Montgomery Boice notes that the Gnostics thought of themselves as ‘knowing ones’.” Part of this was to say that Jesus was not actually incarnate in the flesh. John’s Gospel answers this (and Dodd points out is actually paralleling Gnosticism, rather than combating) by saying “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory as the only Begotten of the Father.”

    Anyway, I think we forget Jesus’ incarnation because it is a messy proposition.

    Boy, we’ve come a long way from Luther and Erasmus, haven’t we?


  4. #4 by Steve on July 31, 2007 - 1:31 pm

    I put up a post at Careful Thought. Please let me know if you think I’m off base.


  5. #5 by Ambrosia de Milano on July 31, 2007 - 5:47 pm

    Not off base at all–the church is lacking in its charity–and the Left Behind books are, in my opinion, wrong.

  6. #6 by Gaylan Mathiesen on April 29, 2009 - 5:41 pm

    You can hardly consider Erasmus a potential reformer–he was all about peace at any price. Luther was immensely popular among young Catholics, and even though the Catholic hierarchy had their own problems with Erasmus, still, he was their best hope for silencing Luther. Yes, Luther had an abrasive style, but he also was a man of his time; he had his personal flaws, and he’d be the first to admit them, but he also had a passion for freeing biblical truth to do its work, and he was not afraid to put his life on the line to defend it. Others might have led a reformation in his day, but they didn’t. So Erasmus had a more irenic style, the historical fact remains he didn’t do what Luther did. Irenics don’t produce reform. Erasmus would not have done a better job than Luther precisely because he was more concerned with peace at any price than with preserving the truth of Scripture by which we can be saved. “Can’t we all just be nice and get along?” sounds sweet, but in that climate to ask what is true is meaningless. Look at the state the church was in at Luther’s time and ask yourself, do you need a tea party or a reformation. Erasmus will pour your tea, but Luther will lead you out of the quagmire. If you want accommodation and peace at any price, pick Erasmus; but if you need a thorough reformation, you’ll need a Luther. God didn’t pick Erasmus; He picked Luther. Luther will have to do.

    • #7 by logiopath on April 29, 2009 - 11:03 pm

      I am flattered that you have responded to my entry–the only time the short-order blogmaster has allowed me top billing.

      I have to take exception with your comments that Erasmus was a softy–even though he admits he is “no wrestler.” I also have to take exception to your comments “God didn’t pick Erasmus; He picked Luther. Luther will have to do.”

      First refuting of your statements–“Peace at any price” I don’t know if Erasmus was about Peace at Any Price–he was friends with Thomas More, and I would hardly think this friendship brought Erasmus peace (especially when in the presence of blustering Henry VIII). And as I recall, being friends with Thomas More wasn’t the most peaceful think in England.

      As to Erasmus not being a Reformer? He was all about reform. He eschewed the trappings of wealth that could have come with his taking high church office, taking instead the poverty that came with being a scholar/monk (not that he never got out). He as a Reformer–a top drawer Reformer–and his writings landed on the Banned Book List just as fast as Luther.

      As to Luther’s calling by God–it is not refutable if the opinion is rooted in existentialism. Luther’s claims cannot be verified, except that his reaction to them was to act–and to place his life on the line for his new found “Sola Scriptura” stand. However, if you are a modern evangalica, you might take exception with Luther’s canon which excluded James and Revelation–and his Anthropology, which cannot make up its mind whether an unbaptized person is lost or the recipient of prevenient grace . . .

      Whether Luther was genuinly called directly by God is a subject of subjective debate (one which I will not engage in–you should have caught me about 10 years ago, when I would have welcomed such an exchange).
      Maybe it is better to say that his Royal champions (I can’t think of his patron) and his successor Malancthon promoted Luther to Prophet status–it certainly could not have been Luther’s personality.

      Furthermore, I believe Luther treated those who would not follow him in a similar way to those who followed Rome–

      BTW, have you read Luther and Erasmus’ debate? Or more than one Erasmus essay? I think if you approach these with an open mind, you will have a breakthrough similar to mine–confessing with great internal release that Erasmus ought to bear the title Great Reformer.

      Thank you for your response,


      • #8 by Gaylan Mathiesen on July 4, 2010 - 5:32 pm

        Indeed I have read the Erasmus and Luther debate on free will, more than once, and it is in that work that you should be able to see that Erasmus is trying to strike a compromise position, which, as Luther skillfully demonstrates, is impossible to do.In fact, it is only when you read Erasmus’ piece and Luther’s diatribe on the bondage of the will together that Luther’s piece becomes clear. Go ahead and cheer for Erasmus all you like, give him all the titles you want, but history is clear–it was Luther, not Erasmus, who led the Reformation.

  7. #9 by Christian Beyer on May 1, 2009 - 12:20 pm

    Good stuff. Pleas carry on.

    -Short Order Blogmaster

  1. Gnostic Traditions in Evangelical Christianity? « Careful Thought II

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