Luther and Erasmus on Scripture, Canon, and Authority

Luther and ErasmusThe history of the Christian tradition can be understood as series of great theological debates determining the trajectory of the doctrines and practices of the Great Church. Since the divide between Jewish and Gentile Christians recorded in the canonical Acts of the Apostles and alluded to by other early Jesus Movement writings, the history of Christianity has been wrought with oft opposed camps of theological forces. Athanasius and Arius, Cyril and Nestorius, Augustine and Pelagius, Michael Cerularius and Pope Leo IX, William of Ockham and Thomas Aquinas; these are but a few of the great theological debates that have shaped Western Christianity.

Perhaps no period of Church history included as many formative theological divergences as the Age of Theological Reform in sixteenth century Europe. Within the context of the Protestant Reformation numerous debates (and eventually, divisions) arose, many of which continue to influence the theology and practice of Western Christians today. Among the most famous of these debates was the literary exchange that occurred between Martin Luther and Erasmus of Rotterdam their respective works, De Servo Arbitrio and De Libero Arbitrio Diatribe Seu Collatio.[1] In these writings Luther and Erasmus treated the relationship between human freedom and divine authority, encountering issues of hermeneutics and interpretation, original sin, and the constitution of acceptable sources of authority for Christian theology along the way.

It is this last arena, Luther and Erasmus’ positions on the proper understanding of authoritative material for the construction of Christian theology, that this blog series seeks to examine. Here we examine these writings in the order in which they were written, reviewing Erasmus and then Luther, incorporating several modern understandings of each writer within our examination of their views on Christian scripture, canon, and authority found in the context of these reformation writings. Due to the complex and lengthy nature of the contents included in this debate, we do not comment upon Luther and Erasmus’ conceptions of the relationship of the human and divine will, except as they pertain to our discussion of authority. Additionally, while Luther and Erasmus wrote a number of treatises that incorporated their understandings of scripture, canon, and authority, the contents of this work generally focuses upon the perspectives found in their respective works on free will and predestination. Upon the conclusion of this study, we will see that despite Luther and Erasmus’ similar views on the nature and role of Christian scripture, their differing conceptions of the central theme of the Christian Gospel, as well as their differing understandings of church tradition and the clarity of scripture, led them to conceive of very different understandings of the scripture and authority.

[1] It should be noted that these works occurred not only in relation to each other, but also with a variety of reformation era theological discourses. Erasmus employed the diatribe, a popular literary form, for his argument, thereby engaging Luther in a specific manner that remains outside the overarching purposes of this paper.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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