Luther's Life: A Curse Upon Erasmus!
“Whenever I pray, I pray for a curse upon Erasmus.”
That quote appears in Martin Luther’s Table Talk, the same place where he called the Prince of the Humanists “the vilest miscreant that ever disgraced the earth” and quipped that those who do not hate Satan ought to love Erasmus. How did Desiderius Erasmus, the foremost public intellectual of his day, manage to get himself placed in the same category as Beelzebub? The answer has something to do with theology, but even more to do with personality.
In 1525, the two men engaged in the most high-profile literary debate of their era over the issues of free will and man’s justification before God. This dramatic clash practically begs a metaphor, and E. Gordon Rupp provides one. “It was a duel in which the two participants got up at the crack of dawn, one armed with a rapier, the other with a blunderbuss, where shaking of fists and mutterings usurped the place of battle, and which ended with two antagonists going their separate ways, undamaged but shaken, and with a frustrating sense of honor ruffled but unsatisfied.” This was a contest of wills that had been a long time coming.
Even before he wrote the Ninety-five Theses, Luther took issue with something in Erasmus’s writing. George Spalatin, the secretary for Elector Frederick of Saxony, wrote to Erasmus in 1516 that a certain Augustinian friar felt “that in his interpretation of St. Paul, especially in that of the epistle to the Romans, Erasmus had failed to conceive the idea of justicia correctly, had paid too little attention to original sin...” The friar in question was Luther, who apparently felt that Erasmus’s explanation of justification attributed too much to human effort. In a letter the following year, Luther complained about Erasmus that “human matters weigh heavier with him than divine”. Already the battle lines were being drawn.
When Luther became the most infamous man in Europe, Erasmus was forced to respond in some fashion, but he strove to avoid declaring himself absolutely. If there is one quote that seems to capture this dilemma, it comes in a letter Erasmus sent to Pope Adrian, who had asked him to write against Luther. After complaining that he was not fit for the task and then protesting that he was no Lutheran, Erasmus finally declared, “I’d rather die than renounce so many friendships. And I would rather die than join a faction.” The scholar Roland Bainton concluded, “Erasmus was by conviction a neutral in an age intolerant of neutrality.” It was this non-committal attitude that caused Luther to famously say, “Erasmus is an eel. Only Christ can grab him.” Absolute certainty was of paramount importance to Luther, who tended to think in terms of harsh dichotomies.
As for Erasmus, he was correct to protest his inabilities in terms of theology. This was not due to any lack of brilliance or education on his part. He was simply happier translating some work of Jerome or promoting a practical Christian ethic. Thus, while he saw certain commonalities between his own campaign against Church corruption and that of Luther, Erasmus was altogether repulsed by the attacks coming from Wittenberg, along with a perceived antinomianism and abandonment of good learning among the Reformers. Bainton notes, “As Luther’s language against the papists grew more violent, Erasmus grew more diffident in his support.”
Erasmus commented at one point that “a bishopric is waiting for me if I choose to write against Luther.” For his part, Luther wrote to Erasmus in 1524 and urged him, “Please remain now what you have always professed yourself desirous of being: a mere spectator of our tragedy.”
It was not to be. Erasmus had chosen his point of attack: the very issue that Luther hinted at in 1516. He released a short book titled De Libero Arbitrio (On Free Will). This is nowhere near Erasmus’s best work. While he makes a few good points, one senses that his heart is not really in it, or that he is not entirely comfortable. In line with much medieval Catholic theology, he struggles to commit himself to a firm position regarding the will’s bondage or lack thereof. He seems to vacillate between different definitions, for which he was subsequently pilloried by Luther. Nevertheless, Erasmus did make a genuine attempt to engage.
Luther’s response, De Servo Arbitrio (On the Bondage of the Will), is a classic text in the anti-Pelagian tradition, but it could have been much stronger. It suffers from a format in which Luther refutes each of Erasmus’s points one-by-one, and it often stoops to personal attacks. Yet if this were a boxing match, there is no question that Luther would win, if only on points. He simply writes far more words far more forcefully.
Erasmus felt bullied by the exchange. He never forgave Luther’s impertinence, even as Luther never forgave Erasmus’s embrace of ambiguity. That is why I say their relationship is best understood in terms of personalities as much as theology. Erasmus differentiated between essentials and non-essentials. For Luther, non-essentials did not exist in theology.
Although the two men never met, Luther’s relationship with Erasmus was undoubtedly one of the most important of his life, if only because of how he chose to reject Erasmus’s thinking and clarify his own. Therefore, the greatest compliment that Luther paid to his enemy was surely this quote near the end of De Servo Arbitrio: “I praise and commend you highly for this also, that unlike all the rest you alone have attacked the real issue, the essence of the matter in dispute…”
Bainton, Roland H. Erasmus of Christendom. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1969) Reprinted in 2016.
Bainton, Roland H. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1978)
Huizinga, Johan. Erasmus and the Age of Reformation. Translated by F. Hopman. (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2001)
Rupp, E. Gordon and Philip S. Watson, editors. Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1969) Includes translations of De Libero Arbitrio and De Servo Arbitrio.
The Table Talk of Martin Luther as translated by William Hazlitt is in the public domain and available online from the Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics.
 Rupp and Watson, 2
 Huizinga, 139
 Huizinga, 142
 Bainton, Erasmus of Christendom, 188
 Bainton, Here I Stand, 119
 Rupp and Watson, 2
 Bainton, Erasmus of Christendom, 167
 Huizinga, 146
 Huizinga, 162
 Rupp and Watson, 333