Medieval Misconceptions

One of the problems of living in an age saturated with knowledge (or at least the claims to knowledge that circulate the portions of the internet that I seem to inhabit) is constantly running into misconceptions about the history of Christianity, especially about the Medieval Age. As we all probably know from personal experience, it’s hard to have a meaningful conversation with someone who doesn’t speak the same language as you. Similarly, it’s difficult to have an intelligent conversation with someone who begins their thinking with a different set of historical assumptions than yourself. So today I’ve outlined ten of the most pervasive misconceptions about Church History as a means of helping adjust the historical basis from which have conversations about faith. These are misconceptions from every era of Church History, but you’ll note that misconceptions about the medieval period are especially prevalent.

Luther Poting 95 Theses1. Church history began with Martin Luther. Or at least, nothing good happened between the death of the Apostle John and Luther’s nailing the Ninety-Five Theses to the Wittenburg church door. The biggest misconception about Church History is that there isn’t Church History, that there haven’t been Christians throughout the world for thousands of years or that there was no “true Christianity” between the Apostles and the beginning of our preferred denomination or church. Continue reading

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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. Continue reading

Luther and Erasmus: Luther on Scripture, Canon, and Authority

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

Martin Luther

Written as a response to Erasmus’ De Libero Abitrio Diatribe Seu Collatio, in which Erasmus critiqued Luther’s position on “absolute necessity” of the human will, Luther’s De Servo Arbitrio offers both a rebuttal of Erasmus’ position on the freedom of the human will as well as demonstrating Luther’s fullest explanation of his theological anthropology concerning the bound human will.[1] As much has been written on this topic, our purpose here does not include considerations of Luther’s arguments concerning the will, instead focusing on his use of scripture, authority, and canon in the construction of his argument. Luther spends a good portion of this voluminous work responding to Erasmus from a general position of reason and Christian history, though without directly appealing to any sources apart from the occasional scripture (Luther, 101-109). Continue reading

Luther and Erasmus: Luther’s Background (P2)

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

Martin Luther

Though his hermeneutic of interpretation was primarily driven by his doctrine of justification by faith alone, Luther also employed additional hermeneutical concerns in his understanding of scripture (Soulen, 115). Luther never advocated an individualistic or isolated reading of the scriptures; indeed, scripture, faith, and community all evidenced a practical influence within his churches (Lohse, 188). But against the community of scholasticism and its detailed glosses and commentaries, Luther argued that scripture was “most easy to understand, most clear, its own interpreter, testing, judging and illuminating everything by everything” (Lohse, 190). By this line of thinking, Luther advocated a literal sense of scriptural interpretation, with scripture functioning as its own clear interpreter. In this position Luther argued both against the hierarchical interpretative method of magisterial Rome as well as the spiritualizing fanatics who emphasized the Spirit over the scriptures (Lohse, 190). Because of the understanding of the clearness of the scriptures and the idea that the gospel represented a unique portion of the scriptures, Luther tended to emphasize the portions of the canon that clearly represented his central interpretive concerns, namely justification by faith alone (Soulen, 119). Continue reading

Luther and Erasmus: Luther’s Background (P1)

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

Martin Luther

Martin Luther stands apart as, along with Jesus of Nazareth, one of the most studied figures in the known history of the world. Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses were, if nothing else, the match that set ablaze that series of events now known as the Protestant Reformation of the Western Church. His subsequent reforming efforts, appearance before the Diet of Worms, translation of the German Bible, and plethora of theological and socio-political writings number him among the most prolific and opinionated known Christian writers. Along with his Ninety-Five Theses, and his Small and Large Catechisms, Luther’s response to Erasmus’s conception of the human will in De Servo Arbitrio remains one of his most widely known works. In attempting to understand Luther’s views on scripture, canon, and authority, we turn here to a review of several scholar’s on Luther’s views before examining his perspective in The Bondage of the Will. Continue reading

Luther and Erasmus: Erasmus on Scripture, Canon, and Authority

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

De libero

Written in 1524 as a response to Martin Luther’s Assertio omnium articulorum, in which Luther wrote that “everything happens by absolute necessity” (Watson, 13), [1] Erasmus’ De Libero Abritrio Diatribe Seu Collatio offers Erasmus’ fullest treatment of his theological anthropology, namely that human freedom must coexist with the divine will in matters of salvation.[2] As much has been written on this topic, our purpose here does not include considerations of Erasmus’ arguments concerning the will. Instead, by our review of Erasmus’ theological construction in this work we hope to demonstrate his perspective on scripture, canon, and authority. He begins this work by noting his limitations, immediately noting the difficulty in examining difficult passages and concepts, arguing that extreme care must be demonstrated in the interpretation of scripture (Diatribe, 35-7). Appealing to the “inviolable authority of the Holy Scriptures” and “decrees of the Church,” Erasmus nonetheless concluded that there are “secret” places in the scriptures that God has not wished men to fully understand, and that attempts to understand such passages lead to confusion of human minds (Diatribe, 37-8). While allowing for a certain degree of probability in the interpretation of scripture, Erasmus made clear his understanding that uncertainty does not necessarily undermine Christian faith, instead functioning as a means of humility and caution (Diatribe, 39). Continue reading

Luther and Erasmus: Erasmus’s Background (P2)

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

Erasmus

As the final source for our understanding of Erasmus’ general views on scripture, canon, and authority, we turn to the Enchiridion, the Handbook of the Militant Christian. Immediately notable in this work is Erasmus’ citation of both scriptures and the writings of the church fathers throughout to affirm his arguments (Enchiridion, 24-93). Here we see Erasmus argue that knowledge of God, the subject matter of theology, was revealed through Christ, and that the living presence of Christ was best encountered through the words of scripture (Jenkins, 67). Fundamental then was the centrality of the scriptures in the Christian life, as well as the understanding that such scriptures were divinely inspired by and proceeding from God (Enchiridion, 53 and Jenkins, 36). Here Erasmus admonished Christians to read and know the scriptures, as such activities were fundamental to living the philosophy of Christ and to traversing the ‘road of virtue’ in the Christian life (Enchiridion, 63-4 and Jenkins, 34). Key scriptures for Erasmus were the holy prophets, the gospels, and writings of the apostles, especially Paul (Jenkins, 34). Continue reading

Luther and Erasmus: Erasmus’s Background (P1)

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

Erasmus

Erasmus of Rotterdam remains one of the most intriguing figures of late medieval Catholic Christianity with his Classical Humanist thought and New Testament scholarship, his bright wit and sharp tongue, and his lifelong devotion to the Catholic Church all painting the picture of a brilliant man who was pulled in different directions during the course of his life. Erasmus was a prolific writer and scholar, his Praise of Folly, Enchiridion, and Novum Instrumentum being among his longstanding and influential works. Indeed, his work with the Greek New Testament led many in even his own day to lay the blame for the Protestant division of the Western Church at his feet, saying about the Reformation that “Erasmus laid the egg, but Luther hatched it.” While Erasmus remained faithful to the Catholic Church throughout his life, he was not immune from scathing criticisms from his fellow Catholics regarding his works. While scholars have argued that throughout Europe scholars had begun asking critical questions of the Latin Vulgate and New Testament before the publication of his works, it was Erasmus’ perspective that often drew the most outspoken critiques (Margolin, 137 and Jenkins, 28). In attempting to understand Erasmus’ views on scripture, canon, and authority, scholars have long drawn upon three major sources: Erasmus’ Novum Intrumentum and the Paraclesis (introduction) to that work, his rejection of the Latin Vulgate in his textual scholarship, and his foundation of the philosophy of Christ found especially in the Enchiridion. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Readings from Martin Luther

Martin Luther
Martin Luther

Martin Luther remains one of the most influential men in Western History, as his attempts to reform the Roman Catholic Church sparked nearly 500 years of debate and division within Western Christianity. It has been said that more has been written about Luther than any other person aside from Jesus of Nazareth, as vast amount of Luther’s writings and complexities concerning his life, teaching, and writing abound. In examining his Preface to the Latin Writings, the famous Ninety-Five Theses, and Freedom of the Christian, Luther presents a variety of concerns and ideas in the earliest stages of what is now called the Protestant Reformation, including his critique of institutionalized power, abuses concerning indulgences and the penitential system, the priesthood of the believer, proper Christian ethics, interpreting Romans 1.17 and justification by faith, and a variety of other theological tropes and concerns. Examining these writings as a whole, Luther’s main argument appears to be that God’s gift of faith should enable the Christian to live as both free from the necessity of works-based justification and the institutionalized penitential cycle as well as remaining duty-bound to love of neighbor and continued penitence for sin. Here we will look at each of these three accounts of or documents from Luther’s early reform program, drawing out their respective main concerns within the scope of Luther’s overall early reformation of the Church. Continue reading