Interview with Carl Trueman on Luther and Erasmus

Published on July 5, 2017 by Joshua R Monroe

Crossway, 2015 | 224 pages

Welcome again to Books At a Glance. I’m Fred Zaspel, and we’re talking again to Dr. Carl Trueman about the Protestant Reformation. Today’s topic – Luther and Erasmus.

Carl, who was Erasmus? And how was his work important—unwittingly or otherwise—in the rise of Reformation?

Trueman:
Desiderius Erasmus was born in 1466. He was from the Low Countries, what we now call modern day the Netherlands. He was by far the most brilliant intellectual of his day; he was a real man of letters; he was the preeminent representative in northern Europe of the cultural movement we now call humanism. Humanism back then was nothing to do with a kind of a polite form of atheism. What it really meant was men of letters, we might say literary public intellectuals. And Erasmus was the preeminent representative of that.

He did a number of things that helped pave the way for the Reformation. First, he was a very articulate and witty critic of the church. He was part of the general disillusionment and anticlerical culture of the late 15th, early 16th century.

Secondly, humanism in general was extremely important for the recovery of classical texts, including patristic, early church father texts. So Erasmus was part of a movement that provided the world with complete editions of Augustine, for example. And reading those completed editions of Augustine was vital for people like Luther and company to make their breakthroughs.

And thirdly, Erasmus specifically put together the Greek New Testament, produced a text of the Greek New Testament and helped pioneer the study of biblical languages in Europe; and that’s absolutely vital for the Reformation. If there’d been no access to the Greek language and the Greek text of the New Testament, there would have been no Reformation in the way that we have it. Because it was, for example, even on the issue of justification, the difference between the Greek dikaio, I declare righteous, and the Latin, iustifico, I make righteous – that’s a vital distinction, theologically, for the reformers.

So, Erasmus was extremely important for providing the technical apparatus for the Reformation.

 

Zaspel:
Describe Luther’s clash with Erasmus. What were the issues at stake?

Trueman:
Well, the support of Erasmus was huge, because Erasmus, as I said, was the most preeminent public figure, intellectual man of letters, of his day; and all sides in the Reformation really wanted to claim him. It’s interesting that, other than Luther, every other reformer you could name in the 16th century – Zwingli, Calvin, the whole lot of them – considered themselves Erasmians in some way. They were big fans of his because they admired his intellect.

Having Erasmus on your side would be huge; and Erasmus was put under huge pressure by the papacy in the early 1520s to declare himself an opponent of Luther. And he finally does this in 1524 when he writes a work, a diatribe, on free will which was a twofold argument. That the human will must be somewhat free in salvation; and also, that the Bible’s teaching, the Bible was not clear enough in its teaching on this issue, and so one needed to trust the church’s declarations on it. Both of those things were anathema to Luther. The freedom of the will undermined his notion of justification and the assurance that can rest upon that justification. And Erasmus’s argument for the fundamental, we might say opacity, of Scripture meant, of course, that Luther’s arguments against the Roman hierarchy and the authority of Rome were considerably weakened; because, if the Bible is obscure, you need a teaching magisterium to explain it to you.

 

Zaspel:
Expand for us how the question of the freedom or bondage of the will bears on the doctrine of justification, in Luther’s thinking.

Trueman:
For Luther, if even one percent of our salvation rests in an ultimate and decisive sense on our own will, then we can have no assurance. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link; and if a human will is the ultimately decisive factor in our salvation, then we cannot be assured of salvation.

Secondly, it makes justification ultimately an act that we do. It’s a work, and so it’s a form of justification by works, and leads to, for Luther, a horrible and fundamental confusion between the Law and the Gospel.

 

Zaspel:
What did Luther think of Erasmus? And what did Erasmus have to say about the Reformation movement?

Trueman:
Oh, Luther absolutely despised Erasmus (both men laughing). When news of Erasmus’s death comes in 1536 to Wittenberg, Luther’s only comment is something to the effect of, “if only he’d died in 1516, as soon as he published the Greek New Testament, he wouldn’t have gone on and done so much damage.” So, he despised Erasmus; but he also feared Erasmus. The reason why he wrote The Bondage of the Will – you know, Luther goes into a deep depression when he reads Erasmus’s work, because he knows he has to answer Erasmus. Erasmus is not the 16th century equivalent of some guy running his own website from his basement and having a potshot. Erasmus is a very serious intellectual, so Luther despised Erasmus, but he also feared him, I think, because he knew how brilliant he was.

Erasmus thought of Luther… I think Erasmus thought he was a bully and a bit of an ignorant pig, really, in the way that Luther behaved himself. Luther was not the polished man of letters that Erasmus was. Early on – and this is why Erasmus gets into trouble – early on, Erasmus is asked by one of Frederick the Wise’s men for an opinion on Luther, and he jots some notes down, and essentially says, “Luther’s two problems are that he’s attacked the luxury of the Pope and the bellies of the monks.” You know, Erasmus is on board with Luther’s attacks on the corruption of the papacy. Where he can’t go with Luther is in Luther’s theological assault; because, for Erasmus, Christianity was to be kind of a mere Christianity, and Christians were those who followed the life that Jesus led. Erasmus is not interested in a dogmatic, or a doctrinal Christianity.

 

Zaspel:
Did he have any specific comments about, say, justification by faith?

Trueman:
Well, he certainly undermines The Bondage of the Will, but I cannot recall any of the top of my head at this point, Fred.

 

Zaspel:
We’re talking to Dr. Carl Trueman about the Protestant Reformation. Next time we’ll take a more domestic look at the Reformer as we take up the topic, Martin Luther and his marriage. We hope you’ll join us then.

 

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LUTHER ON THE CHRISTIAN LIFE: CROSS AND FREEDOM

Crossway, 2015 | 224 pages