The “Erasmian Impulse” (1)

Desiderius Erasmus was probably the most brilliant scholar in sixteenth-century Europe. He was witty, urbane and sophisticated. Born near Rotterdam ca. 1467 in humble circumstances he became the prince of Renaissance humanists. When he died in 1536, he was revered throughout Christendom.

Erasmus was very concerned about the state of the Christian church. He criticized the ignorance and superstition, the corruption and formalism in many of the institutions of the church. He wanted reform in the church that would lead to a form of Christianity that was more simple, more moral, more personal and sincere. He wanted Christians to know the Bible, love Jesus and live a good Christian life.

When Luther gained prominence, Erasmus was initially sympathetic and resisted great pressure from the Roman Catholic authorities to attack Luther. His humane, reasonable and rather tolerant attitudes — linked to a genuine concern, for piety and morality —have become a model to many in our day. We might call such attitudes the “Erasmian impulse” in theology.

Despite his concern for reform in the , church, Erasmus never joined the Protestant movement. In a letter to Martin Bucer, the reformer of Strassburg, written in1527, he explained some of his reasons. He wrote that he was not convinced that the movement came from God, that of the Protestants he knew some had “become worse and none better,” and that he was offended by “the intense discord between the leaders of the movement.” Erasmus showed that the essence of his understanding of Christianity was in the moral change that it produced in its adherents.

In 1524 Erasmus did write a work criticizing Luther entitled, A Diatribe on the Freedom of the Will. He rejected what he saw as the extremism in Luther’s theology in its denial of free will or free choice in matters of salvation. Erasmus argued that the Bible and the church fathers did not support Luther. He warned against making strong assertions in theology and called for moderation. He said that we certianly need grace for salvation, that grace does almost everything for salvation, and that we should give all our praise to grace. But he also said that some human cooperation with grace is necessary to uphold the justice of God and the responsibility of man.

In 1525 Luther responded with his Bondage of the Will, a work almost four times as long as that of Erasmus. Luther’s treatise is a detailed, point my point refutation of Erasmus. Luther always regarded this response as one of his best and most important writings.

Luther acknowledged great strengths in Erasmus: “I recognize that you are a great man, richly endowed with the noblest gifts of God with talent and learning, with eloquence bordering on the miraculous…could very much wish that you would be content with your own special gift, and would study, adorn, and promote languages and literature as you have hitherto done with great profit and distinction.”2

Luther also recognized that Erasmus had focused in his work on a crucial theological issue: “You and you alone have seen the question on which everything hinges, and have aimed at the vital spot….”3 Erasmus had attacked the sola gratia of the Reformation. Luther recognized that this was a critical, foundational matter and vigorously defended his teaching that we are saved by grace alone.


As I recently reread Luther on the Bondage of the Will, I was impressed anew by the power of Luther’s treatise. It remains one of the greatest defenses of an Augustinian theology of grace. But the purpose of this article is not to review Luther’s arguments for grace in detail. Instead I want to reflect on the basis from which Luther argued against Erasmus. I want to look at Luther’s response not just to Erasmus’ theology, but also to the “Erasmian impulse” in theology. It struck me that we need to hear Luther again, because the “Erasmian impulse” is alive and well in the theology of the church today. Truly there is nothing new under the sun.


Two key elements make up the Erasmian impulse to which Luther responded. The first is the character of the Bible and the way in which it is to be used in theological controversy. For Erasmus the Bible was an obscure and ambiguous book that frequently did not speak with clarity. The second is the character of the God whom we serve. For Erasmus God was a being whose actions would satisfy human notions of fairness and justice. Against both of these Erasmian elements Luther would thunder very different convictions.

Erasmus had begun his treatise against Luther saying that he tended to be a skeptic except where the Bible and the Church taught clearly. He did not relish strong theological assertions. Luther attacked him sharply on this point insisting that the Bible, Christianity and faith require strong assertions of truth. The spirit of skepticism is not the spirit of Christianity.

Luther felt that strong assertions were necessary, because the Bible itself made such assertions so clearly. Repeatedly he made the basic assertion that the Bible was clear. “I said above that things which are either contained in or proved by Holy Writ are not only plain, but also salutary…” The clear light of the Bible was like the sun: “For it ought above all to be settled and established among Christians that the Holy Scriptures are a spiritual light far brighter than the sun itself, especially in things that are necessary to salvation.” (Notice that Luther related the clarity of the Bible especially, but not exclusively to matters of salvation. The Bible is clear in all it teaches.) He called the Bible “crystal clear” and declared that it could be understood by “the natural, grammatical meaning of the word.”4

Luther realized that some passages in the Bible were obscure and difficult to understand. But this obscurity was not a great problem: “I admit, of course, that there are many texts in the Scriptures that are obscure and abstruse, not because of the majesty of their subject matter, but because of our ignorance of their vocabulary and grammar; but these texts in no way hinder a knowledge of all the subject matter of Scripture…The subject matter of the Scriptures, therefore, is all quite accessible, even though some texts are still obscure owing to our ignorance of their terms…If the words are obscure in one place, yet they are plain in another….”5 For Luther the problems in Biblical interpretation are in us, not in the Bible. By contrast in the Erasmian impulse the problem is more in the Bible than in us.



Luther saw several ways in which the Erasmian impulse read obscurity into,the Bible. One was laziness: “It is true that for many people much remains abstruse; but this is not due to the obscurity of Scripture, but to the blindness or indolence of those who will not take the trouble to look at the very clearest truth.” Certainly in the church today many are lazy and cannot be bothered to study the Bible with care. A second reason was the misuse of human understanding: “… for reason interprets the Scriptures of God by her own inferences and syllogisms, and turns them in any direction she pleases.” Today too, reason makes the. words of the Bible mean whatever it pleases. A third is interpreting Scripture by turning the plain teaching into another meaning by treating the words as various kinds of figures of speech or tropes. Luther wrote that Erasmus had “discovered a new method of eluding the plainest texts by choosing to find a trope in the simplest and clearest of words.”6

Luther expanded on this third evasion, of the clear meaning of the Bible at several points in his work. He is worth citing in some detail because these arguments reappear in so much contemporary theology. It is the habit of all those who elude arguments by means of tropes to show a brave contempt for the text itself and devote all their energy to picking out some particular word and torturing it by means of tropes, crucifying it on the cross of their own opinion without regard either for the wider context, or the words that follow and precede, or the intention or motive of the author.” This habit of twisting words and contexts makes it easy to evade the force of a text. But perhaps here too there is a rhetorical device that teaches you to obscure the sense whenever there is any danger of your being caught by a word.” The motivation to twist a text is the desire to evade its plain meaning so that one will not have to change one’s theology. Churches today have too many people inventing new definitions of Biblical words and:new contexts of Biblical passages.

Of Erasmus and those like him who undermine the clarity of the Bible Luther wrote, “…though their eyes are open and the words could not be clearer nor the facts more evident, they see just the opposite; so careless are they in their reading and marking of Holy Writ, which they have to brand as obscure and ambiguous.” Sarcastically Luther commented, “Even I must applaud the distinguished pleader for free choice who teaches us to adapt the testimonies of Scripture to our taste by suitable interpretations, so that they may truly stand on the side of free choice, or in other words, may serve to prove not what they ought but what pleases us.” The “Erasmian impulse” seeks to make the Scripture ambiguous wherever it opposes its teaching: “So the whole of this magnificent interpretation achieves nothing more—if it achieves anything at all—than to make that passage of John uncertain and ambiguous. Nor is this surprising, for it is Diatribe’s one concern that the Scriptures of God should be everywhere ambiguous so that she may not be obliged to use them…” Interpretation must please human prejudice rather than submit to the revelation of God: “Here, I see, you are of the opinion that the truth and usefulness of Scripture is to be measured and judged by the reactions of men, and the most ungodly men at that, so that only what has proved pleasing or seemed tolerable to them should be deemed true, divine, and salutary, while the opposite should forth with be deemed useless, false, and pernicious.”7 The world in its opposition to the truth and clarity of the Word becomes the standard for interpreting the Word. How much of academic Biblical studies today are shaped and led by unbelievers.

Luther knew that only those who were led by the Holy Spirit could really understand the truth of the Bible: “If you speak of internal clarity, no man perceives one iota of what is in the Scriptures unless he has the Spirit of God.” Those without the Spirit will inevitably resist the message of the Bible.

Luther also knew that where the Word comes in power, trouble will follow: “…it is the most unvarying fate of the Word of God to have the world in a state of tumult because of it. This is plainly asserted by Christ, when he says: “‘I have not come to bring peace, but a sword’ (Matt. 10:34)…To wish to stop these tumults, therefore, is nothing else but to wish to suppress and prohibit the Word of God. For the Word of God comes, wherever it comes, to change and renew the world.”9 Erasmians want peace above everything and will shave and change the Word in order to promote their conception of peace. Luther spoke in the spirit of the Bible when he said, “Let us have peace if possible, but truth in any case.”

The Erasmian misuse of the Bible is alive in Christian theology today. Each of the Erasmian techniques to avoid the plain meaning of Scripture can be easily demonstrated in discussions ranging from women in office to homosexuality, from church growth to worship.


For Luther the misuse of the Bible by the “Erasmian impulse” reflected a misunderstanding of the character of God. Those who twist the Scriptures to suit themselves usually do so to recreate God in their own image. This reinterpretation of God was especially clear in the debate over grace. The God of the Bible is a God who is awesome in power and majesty, whose ways are far beyond human understanding. His decree predestining some to life and reprobating others to death manifests that power. The complete dependence of man on the grace of God challenges man’s pride and self-reliance. Luther wrote of God: “Thus it comes about that when we do not let God’s will alone have the will and power to harden and show mercy and to do everything, we attribute to free choice itself the ability to do everything without grace, despite our having denied that; it can do anything good without grace.”10 God must do all in salvation; man cannot contribute to or cooperate with grace. Otherwise religion focuses on man’s powers and grace becomes at best marginal in Christian experience.

The notion of such power in God offends us, but that power is revealed in the Bible and demands our faith. Luther wrote: “Thus God hides his eternal goodness and mercy under eternal wrath, his righteousness under iniquity. This is the highest degree of faith, to believe him merciful when he saves so few and damns so many, and to believe him righteous when by his own will he makes us necessarily damnable….”11 Many will not believe such teaching, but if it is true, it must be proclaimed and believed so that we will know the true God and His ways: “And if the ungodly. are scandalized and depart in great numbers (John 6:66ff), yet the elect will remain…He is God, and for his will there is no cause or reason that can be laid down as a rule or measure for it, since there is nothing equal or superior to it, but it is itself the rule of all things. For if there were any rule or standard for it, either as cause or reason, it could no longer be the will of God. For it is not because he is or was obliged so to will that what he wills is right, but on the contrary, because he himself so wills, therefore what happens must be right. Cause and reason can be assigned for a creature’s will, but not for the will of the Creator, unless you set up over him another creator.”12 To deny this power to God is to create another, an inferior God.

Luther saw one example of this need to recognize the true God in the doctrine of predestination. He discussed Romans 9 as a clear Biblical text on election and reprobation. He noted how Erasmus had twisted the text to avoid its plain meaning, especially Paul’s citation of Malachi, “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.” Luther argued: “… God’s love toward men is eternal and immutable, and his hatred is eternal, being prior to the creation of the world, and not only to the merit and work of free choice; and everything takes place by necessity in us, according as he either loves or does not love us from all eternity….”13 Erasmus had suggested that Malachi did not really write of eternal decrees when he mentioned Jacob and Esau. Luther commented, “This again is said to the disparagement of Paul, as if he had done violence to the Scriptures.”14 It is amazing how the approach of Erasmus has been resurrected by “Reformed” authors—such as Harry Boer in his 1980 gravamen against reprobation which he presented to the Christian Reformed synod. The synod rejected the gravamen, but Boer continued to teach its content without any discipline. The “Erasmian impulse” is unwilling to discipline Arminianism. Rather than change its convictions, the “Erasmian impulse” will criticize Paul’s interpretation of the Old Testament and betray the confessional standards it has promised to uphold The doctrine of reprobation is indeed potentially terrifying. Luther acknowledged this: “Who will believe, you say, that he is loved by God? I answer: No man will or can believe this; but the elect will believe while the rest perish in unbelief, indignant and blaspheming as you are here. So some will believe. “Is The God of the Bible is the God of election and also the God who gives faith and enables the faithful to overcome every doubt and temptation.

Luther taught that this doctrine of predestination in its fulness is crucial for Christians to know because it guarantees the promises of mercy in Christ: “For if these things are not known, there can be neither faith nor any worship of God. For that would indeed be ignorance of God, and where there is such ignorance there cannot be salvation, as we know. For if you doubt or disdain to know God foreknows all things, not contingently, but necessarily and immutably, how can you believe his promises and place a sure trust and reliance on them? For when he promises anything, you ought to be certain that he knows and is able and willing to perform what he promises; otherwise, you will regard him as neither truthful nor faithful, and that is impiety and a denial of the Most High God…Therefore, Christian faith is entirely extinguished, the promises of God and the whole gospel are completely destroyed, if we teach and believe that it is not for us to know the necessary foreknowledge of God and the necessity of the things that are to come to pass. For this is the one supreme consolation of Christians in all adversities, to know that God does not lie, but does all things immutably, and that his will can neither be resisted nor changed nor hindered.”16 The plan and grace of God assure us that His promises are absolutely reliable.

Luther believed that to assert free will is to undermine or destroy the work of Christ. Either Christ saves His people completely or free will is the crucial factor in making actual a salvation that Christ only makes possible. Passionately, he wrote: “I wish the defenders of free choice would take warning at this point, and realize that when they assert free choice they are denying Christ. For if it is by my own effort that I obtain the grace of God, what need have I of the grace of Christ in order to receive it?…Hence, inasmuch as you maintain free choice, you cancel out Christ and ruin the entire Scripture. Moreover, although verbally you may make a show of confessing Christ, yet in reality and in your heart you deny him.”17

The “Erasmian impulse” may find in Luther a theologian who was talented and wise in many things. It may see him as heroic and courageous. But it must ultimately conclude that he was too extreme. He pressed points of theology that were better left alone. He did not recognize his own limitations and the frailty of all human thought. Far better if he had left some things unsaid and recognized the spirit of Christ in many who disagreed with him in non-essential matters, such as free will.

To such an impulse Luther would respond that his thought was indeed frail and prone to error. If he were promoting his own ideas, he would indeed have been tolerant and different. But Luther would not permit the Erasmians—for all their good intentions—to turn the Bible into an unclear book. The Bible was the revelation of God and God was successful in revealing Himself in it. Luther would also not permit the Erasmians to refashion God according to their own taste. The real Christian says with Paul, “Let God be true, and every man a liar” (Rom. 3:4). God is all-powerful and accomplishes all things according to the counsel of His will. That truth must be confessed by all Christians. Today the churches are full of Erasmians who are kind, agreeable and tolerant—until they meet a Luther. But these Erasmians are destroying the church. They compromise the gospel atone point after another, maintaining that we must always be dispassionate in our uncertainty.

Today more than ever the church needs strong assertions of Biblical truth. The church needs more Luthers, because Luther ministered in the spirit of Paul and, much more importantly, in the spirit of Jesus. Jesus was no skeptic, but revealed God through His Word clearly, plainly and forcefully. (To be continued.)


1. Cited in Hans J. Hillerbrand, The Reformation, New York (Harper and Row), 1964, p. 424f.

2. Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation, Library of Christian Classics, vol. 17, Philadelphia (Westminster), 1969 (hereafter Luther), p. 333.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid., pp. 124, 159, 168, 283.

5. Ibid., pp. 110f.

6. Ibid.,pp., 111 184 , 220.

7. Ibid., pp. 237, 254, 270, 281, 282, 135.

8. Ibid., p. 112.

9. Ibid., p. 129.

10. Ibid., p. 229.

11. Ibid., p. 138.

12. Ibid., pp. 236f.

13. Ibid., p. 252.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid., p. 136.

16. Ibid., p. 122.

17. Ibid., pp. 321, 323.