The Spirit of Erasmus Lives…

   In their Historical and Theological Introduction to Luther’s Bondage of the Will, J.I. Packer and O. R. Johnson make the following observation, comparing the attitude of Erasmus with the attitude of Luther:

Christianity, to Erasmus, was essentially morality, with a minimum of doctrinal statement loosely appended. What Erasmus professed that he desired to see in Christendom was a return to apostolic ‘simplicity’ of life and doctrine, and this he thought could be brought about simply by eliminating the superstitions and abuses which had crept into the Church’s life over the centuries. The Reformation that Erasmus advocated was like a course of slimming; its aim was confined to the removing of unhealthy surplus fat. But what Erasmus actually advocated under the name of ‘the philosophy of Christ’ as the true, slimmed, ‘simple’ version of Christianity, turns out on inspection to be no more than a barren moralism. Erasmus recognises no organic dependence of practice upon faith. That the life which pleases God springs only from living trust in Christ as the Word of God sets Him forth–that is something the great humanist never saw. That is why he could profess to find so little pleasure in theological dogmatizing that he would gladly side with the Sceptics whenever Scripture and the Church allowed him to do so–although, as he hastened to explain, he uniformly submitted his judgment to these authorities, whether he understood the reasons for what they ordained or not. Luther takes him to task for his remark, and not without justice. Erasmus cannot be acquitted of the charge of doctrinal indifferentism. His attitude was that what one believes about the mysteries of the faith does not much matter; what the Church lays down may safely be accepted, whether right or wrong; for the details of a churchman’s doctrine will not affect his living as a Christian in this world, nor his eventual destiny in the world to come. Therefore, however sure one might be that the Church was at some point wrong, one was never justified in disrupting Christendom about it (as Luther was doing); peace in the Church was of more value than any doctrine. The churchman would be wise not to bother his head about problems of doctrinal definition, but to concern himself simply with guiding his life by the moral law of Christ. In particular, the question as to whether or not man’s will is free, to Erasmus’ mind, can be ignored with perfect safety; it can have no possible bearing on a man’s endeavour to keep the law of Christ, except perhaps to distract and discourage him. (Martin Luther, trans. J. I. Packer and O. R. Johnson, The Bondage of the Will, (Fleming H. Revel: Grand Rapids, Mi, 1957), pp. 43-44)


   It occurs to me that this same Erasmian spirit is alive and well both within so-called “Evangelicalism,” as well as in the various blogs and boards from which James White and James Swann have posted in recent days. Just like Erasmus, such people would favor unity apart from doctrine. Since doctrine divides, we are told to abandon doctrine and just love each other because we all share the same moral values. As Packer and Johnson insightfully point out, Christianity without doctrine is just formal moralism. If being a Christian can be reduced to a set of behavior patterns that we are all supposed to share, then the gospel–that which offends the most–is of no importance, and, indeed, there is no difference between the Christian and the moral atheist. The fact of the matter is, the doctrine of the Trinity, the sinfulness of man, salvation by grace through faith alone, and, yes, even God’s sovereignty in election, are critical and defining issues. That we grapple with these doctrines and search the Word to learn God’s mind on them is as important for the Christian as obedience to the moral law. In fact, if we seek to love the Lord with our heart, soul, mind, and strength, we cannot ignore the doctrines He so plainly lays out for us in His Word.