Luther and Erasmus: Conclusions

This is the final post in our series comparing Martin Luther and Erasmus of Rotterdam’s perspectives on scripture, canon, and authority during the Age of Theological Reformations.

Luther and ErasmusHaving examined Luther and Erasmus’ perspectives on scripture, canon, and authority, especially within the context of their debate concerning the relationship of the divine and human wills, we now turn to consideration of these views in relation to each other. First it should be clear from this study that Erasmus and Luther, by nature of their respective locations within the Christian tradition, both afforded a great deal of authority to the words of scripture, especially those found in the New Testament. This should surprise no one, as the Christian tradition was highly invested in the authority of written texts long before the Protestant Reformation. Second, both Erasmus and Luther were concerned with determining what the biblical texts said, especially as it related to the contents and practice of Christian faith. This similarity becomes evident by the manner in which both Luther and Erasmus understood the scriptures, as the divinely inspired Word of God, and employed scriptural references, namely, generally as uncontextualized proof texts demonstrating a theological point in a manner divorced from the larger socio-historical context of the writing being used. Luther and Erasmus may also have agreed on the parameters of the materials that could be used as scripture, though Luther’s eventual rejection of the Apocrypha and subjugation of certain New Testament writings makes the relationship between Luther and Erasmus’ conceptions of canon somewhat unclear, as does the lack of substantial scholarship on the issue. From Luther and Erasmus’ similarities in the authority they understood scripture to have, as well as their use of that material, it seems safe to conclude that for both Erasmus and Luther, Christian scripture functioned in a highly similar manner, namely as an authoritative source for understanding Christian life and faith.

As should also be clear from our review of Luther and Erasmus’ views, their respective understandings of scripture and authority were by no means identical. In this respect there are several clear differentiating factors. First, Luther and Erasmus had very different understandings of the clarity of scripture. For Luther, the core tenants of the Gospel should have been clear for all to see. For Erasmus, certain passages in the scriptures remained obscure. While it would seem that a certain amount of talking past the other position occurred, the fact that Luther and Erasmus conceived of scripture differently remains. The second major difference between Luther and Erasmus was their conception of the place of scripture within the constellation of potential sources of authority. For Luther, scripture was to stand (rhetorically at least) as the sole source of Christian faith and doctrine. While he drew upon church tradition, it was subjected to the authority of scripture. On the other hand for Erasmus scripture remained the primarily locus of Christian authority, though it remained supplemented with the interpretive wisdom of the church fathers and the insights of philosophical inquiry, especially where the scriptures were not clear. A third difference between Luther and Erasmus, though perhaps not clear from our review of their writings on the human will, consist of their differing conceptions of the Christian Gospel. Luther understood the gospel to center on justification by faith alone, a gift of God highlighted by humanity’s utter lack of the freedom to save themselves. In contrast, Erasmus understood the gospel more in terms of the philosophy of Christ, the undertaking of a life devoted to imitating and becoming more like Christ, necessitating a certain amount of free will. Thus both Luther and Erasmus’ understanding of the Christian Gospel not only influenced their conception of the human will in relation to the divine, but also influenced their reading and interpretation of the scriptures to come to those interpretive conclusions. Thus, we have seen that despite Luther and Erasmus’ similar views on the nature and function of Christian scripture, their differing conceptions of the central theme of the Christian gospel, as well as their differing understandings of church traditions and the clarity of scripture, led them to conceive of scripture and authority differently.

Select Bibliography

Erasmus, Desiderius. De Libero Artitrio: On the Freedom of the Will. Edited E. Gordon Rupp and A.N. Marlow. The Library of Christian Classics: Volume XVII, Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation. Westminster Press: Philadelphia, 1969. Print.

–. “Enchiridion.” Edited John P. Dolan. The Essential Erasmus. Merdian Publishing: New York, 1964. Print. 24-93.

–. An Exhortation to the Diligent Study of Scripture. Translated Frank Luttmer. Hanover College History Department. Antwerp, 1529. Electronic.

Jenkins, Allan K. and Patrick Preston. Biblical Scholarship and the Church: A Sixteenth Century Crisis of Authority. Ashgate Press: Hampshire, 2007. Print.

Lindberg, Cater. The European Reformations. Blackwell Publishers: Oxford, 1996. Print.

Lohse, Berhard. Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development. Translated and Edited Roy A. Harrisville. Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 1999. Print.

Luther, Martin. Assertio omnium articulorum M. Lutheri per Bullam Leonis X novissimam damnatorum Article 36, Dec. 1520. Weimarer Ausgabe, D. Martin Luthers Werke. Kritische Gesamtausgabe. 90 vols. Weimar, 1883ff. Print.

–. Babylonian Captivity of the Christian Church. Translated by A.T.W. Steinhauser. Edited by Frederick C. Ahrens and Abdel Ross Wentz. Three Treatises from the American Edition of Luther’s Works. Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 1970. Print. 113-260.

–. De Servo Arbitrio: On the Bondage of the Will. Edited by Philip S. Watson and B. Drewery. The Library of Christian Classics: Volume XVII, Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation. Westminster Press: Philadelphia, 1969. Print.

–. Freedom of the Christian. Translated by W.A. Lambert. Edited by Harold J. Grimm. Three Treatises from the American Edition of Luther’s Works. Fortress Press: Minneapolis. Print. 261-316.

Margolin, Jean-Claude. ”The Epistle to the Romans (Chapter 11) According to the Versions and/or Commentaries of Valla, Colet, Lefevre, and Erasmus.” Translated John L. Farthing. The Bible in the Sixteenth Century. Editor David C. Steinmetz. Duke University Press: Durham, 1990. 136-166. Print.

Mullet, Michael A. The Catholic Reformation. Routledge: London, 1999. Print.

Payne, John B. “Erasmus on Romans 9:6-24.” The Bible in the Sixteenth Century. Editor David C. Steinmetz. Duke University Press: Durham, 1990. Pages 119-135. Print.

Preus, James Samuel. From Shadow to Promise: Old Testament Interpretation from Augustine to the Young Luther. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1969. Print.

Soulen, Richard N. Sacred Scripture: A Short History of Interpretation. Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, 2009. Print.

Watson, Philip. “Introduction: Lutheran Riposte.” Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation. General Editors John Baillie, John T. McNeill, and Henry P. Van Dusen. The Library of Christian Classics, Vol. XVII. Westminster Press: Philadelphia, 1969. Print.


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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