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Erasmus & Luther: Their Attitude To Toleration -Robert H. Murray Litt.D.

THE saying that “Erasmus laid the egg which Luther hatched” is first alluded to by Erasmus himself in 1523, though the suspicion of the identity of their fundamental teaching had long been current. The scholar informs a friend that the Franciscans say this of him. The truth, he adds, is that he had indeed laid a hen’s egg, but Luther had hatched out quite a different nestling. One pamphleteer compares Erasmus to the miller who grinds the flour and Luther to the baker who bakes it into bread to feed the people. Bucer remarked: “In all things he (i.e. Luther) agrees with Erasmus: only what Erasmus merely suggests, he teaches plainly.” In 1534 Erasmus states that the German Franciscans repeat the saying, particularly the Cismontane commissioner of the Order, Nicholas Herborn. With the assistance of the friars he published a volume of sermons in Antwerp, in which appeared “the favourite assertion of the brethren” that “Erasmus is Luther’s father.” He laid the eggs and Luther hatched out the chicks. “Luther, Zwingli, Œcolampadius and Erasmus are the soldiers of Pilate who crucified Jesus.” Similar utterances were widespread in orthodox circles. Killian Leib, the Prior of the monastery of Rebdorf, in describing in his Annales the year 1528, bewails the effect of the writings of the humanist on religious life of the time. “Wherever Erasmus had expressed a wish or even merely conveyed a hint, there Luther has broken in with all his might.” Leib refers specially to the remarks contained in the Annotations on the New Testament, notably on Matthew 11, upon feasts and fasts, marriage laws and the practice of confession, on the heavy burden of prayers, the number of the Decretals, and the endless ceremonial rules. Canisius records that he had frequently heard a saying which agrees with the words of Leib: “Ubi Erasmus innuit, illic Lutherus irruit.” That is, where Erasmus merely indicated, Luther violently eradicated. “Erasmus is a more formidable enemy than Luther,” Aleander reports, “he is the real father of the new heresy.” Melanchthon wrote to Camerarius on July 26, 1529, that “the whole tragedy of the dispute on the Eucharist originated with him (i.e. Erasmus).” Eoban of Hesse compared Luther with Erasmus:

Ante quidem vidit mundoque ostendit Erasmus.

Sæcula quo cernunt doctius ista nihil.

Quam fecisse igitur velut est missus ostendisse,

Lutherus meriti grandius instar habet.

There was one way to avoid such comparisons. Let Erasmus write against Luther. “So long as he refuses to write against Luther, we consider him a Lutheran,” Erasmus tells his friend, Sir Thomas More. Henry VIII in 1521 and 1523 begged him to write, and Tunstall supported his plea. George of Saxony was as insistent in 1522 in his desire for Erasmus to write as Henry of England. The humanist doubted if he possessed the necessary knowledge: besides, he shared in part the ideas he was to refute. To this George answered that if Erasmus considered silence the best means of calming heresy he would cease to importune him. Nevertheless, he gave the author to understand that he had not changed his mind, and that he wished as ardently as ever to see him at last fight for the Catholic faith. Charles V was aware of the value of his services, and dreamt of giving him “command against the Lutheran faction,” though doubtless the cares of empire, especially the Spanish anxieties, dispelled this dream. On August 8, 1522, Erasmus wrote to Mosellanus concerning the desire expressed by the Emperor, the King of England, and certain Roman cardinals. “All want me to attack Luther. I do not approve of Luther’s cause, but have many reasons for preferring any other task to this.”

Naturally the popes had tried to enlist the learning of the first man in Europe on behalf of the Church over which they presided. Leo X had asked him to intervene, but, in the face of the reluctance of Erasmus, he did not insist. His successor, Adrian VI, was more pressing. On December 1, 1522, he assured the scholar of his sympathy and stated that he refused to listen to the calumnies laid to his charge; and, in order to convince him of his sincerity, he enjoined Nicholas of Egmond to cease his attacks. Clement VII, like his predecessor, invited Erasmus to Rome, for where could he work better for the refutation of the Lutheran heresy than in the Vatican library?

After long delay Erasmus finally decided to comply with the urgent requests made to him, and to publish a book against the central point of Luther’s creed, the determinism of the will. The humanist insisted on the worth of man, the reformer on his worthlessness. The humanist emphasized the freedom of man, the reformer his serfdom. To Henry VIII Erasmus wrote, “The die is cast, my book on free will has appeared. In the actual state of things in Germany I expect to be stoned, and already some furious pieces of writing nave been thrown at my head.” The author, men said, maintained in true Erasmian fashion that he had only yielded against his will to strong persuasion, and that the work had been wrung from him; that, writing of free will, he had lost his own free will, and was therefore not to be taken seriously. This matter formed the foundation of Luther’s theology, being no more than another aspect of the doctrine of justification by faith, the plea of the individualism of the Reformation.

From 1519 to April 1524, there had been no direct correspondence between the scholar and the prophet: they were never fated to meet face to face. The latter broke the silence by a letter complaining of the criticisms Erasmus had lately been directing against him, informing him that he has nothing to fear, “even though an Erasmus should fall on him tooth and nail.” He eulogizes the abilities of Erasmus and implores him to leave his doctrines alone, and concern himself with his own humanist affairs. “I desire that the Lord may bestow upon you a spirit worthy of your name. If the Lord, however, still delay this gift, I would beg you meanwhile, if you can do nothing else, at least to remain a mere spectator of our tragedy. Do not write against me or increase the number and strength of my opponents; particularly do not attack me through the press, and I for my part shall also refrain from attacking you.” If the scholar wrote against him he must expect the severest reprisals, for he was beginning to be tired of his clemency and of his mildness towards the sinners and the wicked.

Blame of the De Libero Arbitrio Diatribe, 1524, came from his own camp. Men did not forget that the author of the new apologia had written the Encomium Moriæ. It was at least possible he was an enemy in the disguise of a friend. “It would have been better for Christianity,” wrote Hezius to Blosius, “if Erasmus had never touched theology or written anything on these matters. Many people think he would have done less evil in openly siding with Luther than by walking on two feet, and seeming to range himself now with one party, now with another. Divines hold that in time of schism those who wish at the same time to belong to two parties, and yet to be of neither the one nor the other, are more dangerous than those who join boldly one of them, be it even the worse.” The Prince of Carpi suspected all theology coming from the author of the Praise of Folly, “that infected soil whence sprang spontaneously such great trees bearing poisoned fruit.” Erasmus does not criticize some Lutheran dogmas. Does he not therefore tacitly imply approval of those he refuses to condemn? Bullinger regarded the book as blasphemous. To Capito it was a “carnal book,” and, in a letter he wrote on his own behalf and that of his friends, Hedio, Bucer, and others, he was not slow to express his contempt for this “slave of glory,” who preferred “peace under Antichrist to war under Christ.” On the other hand Clement VII warmly approved of it.

The quarrel between Erasmus and Luther is in reality another phase of the controversy that once ranged round the problem of Free Will and Grace. It is as ancient as the contest between St. Paul and the Stoics, as modern as the question of the miraculous, for if a man believes in the freedom of the will he can also believe in miracle. When Christianity was fighting against Manichæan dualism it maintained human liberty as resolutely as St. Austin. There was a reaction when Pelagius, influenced by classical writers, notably Seneca, insisted that liberty is the honour, the dignity, of man. This liberty includes the power of choice between good and evil: it is as freely exercised after sin as before it. In the sixteenth century the humanists for the most part lean to the doctrine of the freedom of the will: the Lutherans stoutly opposed it. The Pelagians hold that man alone acts. The Lutherans hold that God alone acts on man: they do not hold that God and man act together. John Locke and Deists like Tindall lean to the Pelagian view. Rousseau implicitly held it when he said,” L’homme naît bon,” and Ritschl holds it.

In order to justify the ways of God to man, Erasmus applies himself to the examination of the relevant parts of the Bible. His exegesis is subject to the judgment of the Church, and he offers to withdraw with a good grace any part of it, if required. That is, the scholar whose life had been spent in developing the free interpretation of the sources of Christianity, by the light of reason and knowledge, now rests his plea on authority and offers to submit the results of his method to the bar of authority. The method adopted has passed away and with its disappearance much of the interest of the booklet, though the agreeable Latin in which it is written makes it a pleasure to read. The doctrine professed by Luther has affinities with the Manichæans and Wyclif, yet Erasmus never accuses his opponent of heresy. He had strong grounds for thinking, so he informed Archbishop Warham, that his answer “would shut the mouths of those who endeavoured to persuade the princes of his complete agreement with Luther.” The method of the modern determinist was not open to him. Pure speculation and psychological observation were not for him. His linguistical knowledge of the Bible and his skill in the interpretation thereof were the sole weapons employed. From it he deduced that God is master and man was a slave, though a slave with a share of freedom and responsibility. It was an old position with him, for in his Paraphrase on the Epistle to the Romans in 1517 he had defended the liberty of man. Before Pascal he believes that mankind is ni ange, ni bête. Man is a pilot who thanks God for having saved him from a tempest. Nevertheless, his own talent is essential for the navigation of the ship. As Fénelon put it: man acts, God leads him. The Erasmian attitude to wrong was as clear as in his letter to Marlian when he inquired, “Where have I said that the least of our acts was a sin?”

As in the Enchiridion and the important Paraphrases, Erasmus believes that, in spite of the fall of Adam, man is capable of having faith in God. “They singularly exaggerate original sin who maintain that the best powers of human nature are so corrupt that it can accomplish nothing of itself except to hate God and to be ignorant of him.” In the Paraphrases he had raised a notable point. If nature is capable of finding truth, what is the necessity for Christ? He had no solution in 1518 and 1519. Luther then had his solution, which largely consisted in denying that there was such a problem as that raised by Erasmus. In other words, he shut his eyes to the world of experience, thereby omitting present knowledge and making a break with past knowledge. Erasmus saw the continuity of the divine process. There had been a law of nature: that was in the time of the classical world. There had been a law of works: that was under the law of Moses. There was now the law of grace: that was under Christ. Stage by stage Providence has guided the human race to perfection. There is not, as in Luther, opposition between the stages. Antiquity prepares the way for Judaism, and Judaism in turn prepares the way for Christ.

To Erasmus the Bible assumes the freedom of the will throughout. The Old Testament in particular speaks of rewards and punishments, showing us God angry with our faults and pleased with our repentance. Why should He curse men if they sin of necessity? What is the use of commands if they cannot be observed? The Gospel invites us to strive and to watch, pointing out that we shall be judged by our strivings and our watchings. Now how shall we be judged if our acts are inevitable? Who dare speak of strivings if there is no liberty? As Erasmus dryly remarks, “Neque natura, neque necessitas habet meritum. The views of the wise, the traditions of the doctors, the beliefs of humanity, the testimony of our own conscience—all tell us that in this matter the Bible is plainly right. Erasmus makes little attempt to solve the nature of human will, whether it is, as with Occam, the sovereign power of choice or, as with Aquinas, the habit of good, though he leans to this standpoint. Be this as it may, he agrees with Lorenzo Valla that we cannot deny the freedom of the will, though we remain ignorant of its nature. Without it, however, and without the motive of merit it assumes, there is meaning neither in life nor in religion.

The author offers a vigorous defence of authority. Men claim individual inspiration, inner illumination, when they oppose the Church. The light they received, however, could not be clear, for it led them in diverse directions. In a penetrating analysis Erasmus examines the current view. Men say the mere number adds nothing to the value of the judgments on the meaning of the Spirit. True, but does the individual add much? They ask, What is the value of the mitre of the bishop in understanding the Scriptures? What is the worth of the cowl of the monk? Is not the Spirit alone the judge? True, but who will certify the possession of the Spirit? Are men themselves to certify it? They barely believe the Apostles who confirmed their doctrine by miracles. Let one of these new apostles show me one of their number who has been able to heal a lame horse. And if against them, very much against them, others speak in the name of the Spirit, who will decide? Here is their crux.

In the interpretation of the Bible Erasmus lays stress on the agreement of the Fathers, regarding this as peculiarly valuable. “What has been transmitted by the general assent of the orthodox doctors and what has been clearly defined by the Church must no longer be discussed, but believed.” The Church is greater than its fathers and doctors, its schools and systems, taking from them all that assists its divine mission: if it is without mental haste, it is without mental rest. “Time,” thinks Erasmus, “bears many matters with it: it changes many others. In apostolic times the tiny Christian community met in upper rooms: now the crowd of the faithful assemble in a public temple.… In apostolic times, in the assembly of the brethren, one sang a hymn, another a psalm, one spoke in divers tongues, another prophesied. Now some have a fixed office arranged beforehand … In olden days the bishops were elected by the votes of the people. Abuses led us to confide this function to the hands of selected men. For centuries it seemed abominable to Christians to see in their temples statues or images.… Now the use of such symbols has grown to such a degree that their number is not only excessive, but it is sometimes inconvenient … Had Paul lived in our time, would he have reproved these customs?” The change of ceremony testifies to the change in dogma, to its gradual enrichment of all that truth yields to the Church.

Praise of the Diatribe came from the enemy’s camp. Melanchthon had the magnanimity to confess that “your moderation pleases us, though you have thrown on passages some grains of black salt. But Luther is so angry as to be able to get nothing out of it. Besides, he promises to show himself in his reply as moderate as you are.… I know his grateful feelings for you: it makes me hope he will answer you without delay.… Luther salutes you with respect.”

This letter of Melanchthon’s is all the more creditable to him, for he had defended the slavery of the human will against the theologians of Paris. Cardinal Jacopo Sadoleto, Juan Luis Vives in the name of the King of England, Paul Volz and the astute Chancellor Gattinara expressed their lively gratitude. Martin Lipsius agreed with this praise. Ulrich Zasius, the Freiburg-im-Breisgau lawyer, who had hitherto been wavering, wrote enthusiastically of the work to Boniface Amerbach. Ferdinand, the brother of the Emperor, expressed his satisfaction with the book. The sincere Duke George wrote his warmest thanks to the author: “Continue the contest you have begun; the Pope, the Emperor, all the great men of the Church are on your side. The spouse of Christ, our holy Mother Church, will smile on you: under her eyes, encouraged by her applause, you will shiver lances, and on your white hair you will receive the crown of Christ.” Deliberately orthodox as he was, the Duke eagerly desired a disciplinary, not a doctrinal, reformation.

Much against his will, Luther admitted the kindness with which Erasmus assaulted the most vital point of his teaching, as he justly termed it. The question dealt with, he said, certainly constituted the central point of the quarrel: it is absolutely essential that we should know what and how much we are capable of in our relations to God, otherwise we remain ignorant of God’s work, nay, of God Himself, and are unable to honour, to thank, or to serve Him. The author, unlike his previous opponents, “had seized upon the real question at issue, the summa causæ.” He had not scolded him on the papacy, indulgences, and similar subjects, but had hit upon the cardinal point, and held the knife at his throat. God had not, however, yet bestowed on Erasmus the grace which would have fitted him to deal with the controversy. The influence of Occam and Biel was still weighty with Luther, for they aid him in his grasp of the absolute will of God. It is significant that Ritschl refound in the De Servo Arbitrio the absolute will of God.

Like the Montanists, Luther referred everything to God. Both Montanus and the reformer were able to speak “in the spirit by ecstatic vision.” Did not the Paraclete utter through the lips of Montanus, “Behold a man is as a lyre, and I hover round as the plectrum: the man sleeps and I watch; behold it is the Lord who transports the hearts of men, and gives them (new?) hearts!” They are as passive as clay in the hands of the potter. Erasmus cites in his Diatribe a long list of the names of free-will advocates; they include Origen, Basil Chrysostom, Tertullian, Cyprian, Arnobius and Ambrose. In his reply Luther cites two, and they are Wyclif and Valla. Erasmus emphasized the point that, according to Luther, not only every good but also every evil comes from God. Was this in agreement with the nature of God? Was it not excluded by His holiness? According to Luther, God inflicted eternal damnation on sinners who, as they were not free agents, could not be held accountable for their sins. Who can resolve to love with all his heart a Deity who has created the torments of hell in order to punish some unhappy people for His own crimes, as if He loved to see them suffer? What sinner will henceforth try to amend his life? The Scripture passages bearing on the question, especially those used by Luther in his Assertio, are subjected to a careful analysis. The orthodox Church was clever enough to employ such humanistic doctrine, with the result that the successors of Erasmus and Reuchlin during the next two centuries are to be found in the schools of the Jesuits.

The work reached Wittenberg in September 1524. At first Luther treated it with contempt. He told Spalatin on November 1 that he had been able to read only eight pages of it, and that it disgusted him beyond measure. The delay in the reply was due in part to the Peasants’ War and in part to his marriage with Catherine Bora. The effect of the Diatribe made it too serious to be neglected.

The humanists, naturally following Erasmus, were impressed by his book. Conrad Mutianus, now an old man, welcomed the defence of free will. He was a singularly interesting type. He was educated at the school of Hegius at Deventer, Erasmus’s old school. The fundamental maxim of Hegius was that learning gained at the expense of religion was lost. Mutianus studied at Erfurt, proceeded to Italy, where he became strongly attached to Neo-Platonism, and to its advocates, Angelo Poliziano and Marsilio Ficino. On his return to Germany he was given a poor prebend at Gotha, where he lived a scholar’s life, inscribing over his door the motto Beata tranquillitas. He wrote no book, compared himself in this respect to Socrates and Christ, who also bequeathed no writing to mankind. His delightful confidential letters to his friend reveal his views. Natural religion was congenial to his nature. As Christ was the Word of God before His incarnation, He was therefore a light to the Greeks and Romans. So far did he carry this view that he once taught, “There is only one God and one Goddess, though there are as many names as deities—for example, Jupiter, Sol, Apollo, Moses, Christ, Luna, Ceres, Proserpina, Tellus, and Mary. But beware of repeating this. These matters must be wrapped in silence. In matters of religion we must make use of the mask of fables and enigmas.” In historical Christianity he was not interested: in spiritual Christianity he was intensely interested. As a cautious believer in toleration he befriended Reuchlin: for he at once saw that in this case his principle was at stake. Among the members of the club which he formed at Gotha, for discussion of the new books from Italy, were Georg Spalatin, and Heinrich Fastnacht, who called himself “Urbanus.” He impregnated such men as Eoban of Hesse, Ulrich von Hutten, and Johann Jäger, who called himself first “Venator” and then “Crotus Rubianus,” with his love of inquiry.

Conrad Mutianus was not the only man to be influenced by the De Libero Arbitrio. Hunus Crotus, Wilibald Pirkheimer, and Ulrich Zasius returned to the attitude of suspicion of the new faith. Budé, Vives, and Sir Thomas More remain firm in their adhesion. The author informed Cardinal Sadoleto that as a result of his book, scholars, deceived by Lutheran dogma, were everywhere altering their opinions. On the other hand, the scholars of Erfurt were not to be separated from Luther; neither were Justus Jonas, Adam Kraft, Johann Lang, Euricius Cordus, John Draconites, Joachim Camerarius, Menius and Eoban of Hesse, who, however, wavered long. The movement which made Luther possible made Erasmus impossible. The conservative reformer is never popular. Erasmus no more secured favour than Wolsey. In his departure from the traditional faith Luther possessed much sympathy from men of learning. The reign of individuality ushered in by the Renaissance stood for the tendency to emphasize the natural ability and independence of man. Pico della Mirandola wrote an illuminating book On the Dignity of Man. With an utter disregard for scholasticism, Michelet makes the discovery of humanity the essential characteristic of the Renaissance. Erasmus had too thoroughly absorbed the spirit of ancient rationalism and classic moralism to admit even for a moment that his will was a mere plaything in the hands of God. Luther looked outward in this respect, Erasmus looked inward. Truth is not outside us but within us, part of the living reality of our being. Were the great men who had laid down their lives in the noblest causes, Socrates, Decius, the martyrs of early Christianity, simply instruments of Divine Omnipotence? Had they no merit of their own? Did they only serve to show forth to men the power of God? Such fatalism was absolutely unacceptable to scholars to whom the personality of the individual was an end and not merely a means. To Luther the renunciation of all self-confidence is a fundamental of Christian experience. To Erasmus the ability of man to realize the mind of God to the fullest extent of his powers—and the scholar amply recognizes the constant need of Divine grace—is just as fundamental. The alienation of the humanist was a tragedy.

The personal element in the alienation entered. Erasmus was the leader of a great body of scholars. Luther was the leader of a growing band of reformers. There was a whole heaven between them. Erasmus was no believer in the new doctrines advanced and he was no approver of the new methods employed. Was it a proof of cowardice that he was not willing to die for a faith he did not share? Was it inconsistent to cease to have relations with party to which at heart he never belonged? Was it so very unintelligible that he who had so long been leader should refuse to be led? Reuchlin had refused to follow Luther. Erasmus could not become a follower of Luther, and Luther would tolerate none but followers. Erasmus had prepared the way for the new Messiah, only to find that there was no longer a place for John the Baptist. In fact, Luther had come to the stage when the paths decisively diverged, the one heading to evolution and the other to revolution. The choice lay between reform and revolution, and Luther chose revolution. Humanism in his eyes blocked the road to spiritual freedom. The cause of Erasmus was suffering desertion from its ranks, a plain proof that God was not with him. There are evil spirits, as German legend tells us, which it is easier to raise than to lay, and the spirit of revolt is of them. Erasmus had raised the tempest but could not control it. Luther was to control as well as to continue to raise the tempest.

The Reformation and the Renaissance had been related as the smaller movement to the larger. Erasmus had created the conditions which rendered the Lutheran revolt possible. The liberals of the day, the humanists, were as stoutly opposed as Luther to the reign of scholastic authority and of scholasticism. It proved impossible on this point to reconcile Protestant humanism and Protestant Lutheranism. The day for argument was going, if not gone, for Erasmus was beginning to insist that there are evils which can only be healed by fire and sword. So thought the head of the writer, but his heart shrank from it. Tragedy, according to Hegel, is not the conflict between right and wrong, but the conflict between right and right. That tragedy was now to be witnessed. In 1525 the Council of Bâle consulted Erasmus on the policy to be pursued towards the reforming party. In reply he declared himself friendly to innovators not shaking public order, and advised the magistrates not to burn the writings of Bugenhagen or Œcolampadius.

On paper the scholar had won a great triumph by his De Libero Arbitrio, but the reality was far different. For more than a generation he had received the plaudits of men. He had been abused, but that had been by monks who had reasons of their own—reasons he could afford to despise. Now he had not allayed the suspicions of the orthodox, and was an object of deep distrust to the followers of Luther. His was the destiny of Montaigne, who remarked, “Je fus pelaudé à toutes mains; au Ghibelain j’étais Guelfe, au Guelfe Ghibelain.” Some princes and not a few learned men had gone over to the other side, and his defence of free will ultimately involved him in controversies with many German and Swiss reformers. Above all, he saw the failure of his life-work. His victories in the past had been Cadmean. The plan of peaceful reform, the success of his method by the employment of the mind of man, was doomed to come to naught—in his day at least. His courage had once been buoyant, his hopes had once been high. He had walked on the heights when the sun of success—the success of his ideal—was shining. Now he could not avoid despondency as he thought about the unknown future. He felt weary of the struggle and was tempted to think that he had failed. Years of strenuous service to the cause of toleration lay behind him, and what was the outcome of it all? The high spirits, the resilient spring of youth, were gone. Was the reward of old age, the realization of his dearest hopes, not to be his? For his own dignity, for his own comfort he was concerned. It is bare justice to him to say that he was infinitely more concerned for the cause of truth. Reuchlin could say, “I reverence St. Jerome as an angel, I respect De Lyra as a master, but I adore truth as a God.” That reverence for the Fathers, that respect for the classical writers, that love of truth was the possession of Erasmus. The gifts of the man of thought had been abundantly bestowed upon him, those of the man of action had been denied him. The fervour of faith he lacked, the composure of culture he possessed. Had he coveted wealth or worldly distinction, he could easily have secured either or both. He had preferred the path of knowledge, and that path was one day to lead to the goal of toleration. He realized too keenly how thin is the layer between the fabric of society and the volcanic heat and destroying flame of anarchy. Like Burke, he trembled at the sight and he shrank back at the dire prospect.

Once Erasmus had satirized others: now his own turn had come. A shower of abusive pamphlets fell all around him. The “pseudo-Lutherans” threatened in his eyes to overthrow everything and to place Europe in a state of Scythic barbarism. Where in 1525 was there the brilliant literary promise of the years from 1515 to 1520? Not a few of the humanists had adhered to the Lutheran cause, and death had thinned their ranks. Longueil, Linacre, Baptista, Deloynes and Martin van Dorp—all had gone. The Peasants’ War had ruined the University of Erfurt. Joachim Camerarius, the friend of Melanchthon, Niger, Euricius Cordus, the Latin poet, and Mycellius, the glories of German humanism, were seeking place and profit. Eoban of Hesse, the poet, was shorter of money than ever. When had letters reached such a low level? As often happens in revolutions, one great interest was thrust aside by another. Men realized that there was more in life than the classics, and, realizing it, forsook them. The elevation of the mind was important, but was not that of the soul more so? The altar of knowledge was deserted for the altar of faith. The Great High Priest of culture ministered as of old, but the worshippers were no longer there. Growing old, lonely, he saw the clouds of darkness gathering round him: he saw not the light that was already breaking through them. He had taken his candle, and in its clear but contracted light he had striven through the intellectual darkness past every obstacle, stopping his ears against the fears of his body and against the voices of his friends. There had been conflicts without, but was there not to be peace within? The gloom was encircling him, but was it to be complete? Was he in his lifelong quest to be in the end utterly alone with the Alone?

About the time of the free-will controversy, Luther in the Table-talk delivered his soul on the character and ability of his enemy. There he grudgingly admits that Erasmus has rendered the gospel exceedingly great services, though he cares more for the glitter of a worldly mind than for holy truth. Had St. John spoken like Demosthenes, Erasmus would have esteemed him more highly. He believes in Democritus, in Epicurus, and, above all, in his dear Lucian, and Lucian is even less obnoxious than he. For him the word of Christ has no more weight than Solon’s. Belief in the immortality of the soul is a mere fable. God the Father and God the Son seem to him absurd, and even more absurd are the people who believe in them seriously. If it were possible to analyse his heart, one would see there grinning figures laughing at the sacraments and at the Trinity. They say that he is a Lutheran, a suspicion that does too much honour to Luther and from this honour he is anxious to be freed. Is he a Catholic? Scarcely. He is a Papist, the sworn enemy of all religious men. He pretends to comment on the sacred texts and amuses himself with destroying the belief of his readers. He is the most dangerous enemy Christianity has encountered for the last six centuries, the personal enemy of God, who will avenge Himself on him. Unfortunately, it is no easy matter to refute Erasmus. As Hutten remarks, this impious man is a veritable Proteus. He is, in a word, “the king of amphibology.” He excels in finding the most subversive ideas in an ambiguous form. Twisting like an eel, he leaps from one affirmation to another exactly opposite. He takes trouble not to utter a plain yes or no. Never betraying his true sentiments, he never gives a firm opening to his adversaries, Catholic or Lutheran, and he is as dangerous to the one as to the other.1

Simultaneously with the publication of the De Servo Arbitrio1 Luther wrote to Erasmus a letter—now lost—demanding his gratitude for the skill with which, on account of their friendship, he had avoided making several retorts.1 Disguising the feelings manifested in the Table-talk, he swore that he entertained the kindest feelings to Erasmus. In his penetrating and remarkably frank work Luther practically abolished the freedom of the will, even in the performance of works not connected with salvation. He makes the casual remark that man is free in inferior matters. Like Trithemius, an encyclopædia of learning, he does not believe that man is under subjection to the stars. The question he has in his mind is, Does man possess free will in respect of God? And to this question he returns an unhesitating negative. To the writer the all-powerful Divine control was utterly inconsistent with the freedom of the human will. The awakening of religious feeling exalted the power of God and annulled that of man; for religion was realized to be the complete dependence in which man feels himself in all his relations with God. Man was the slave of God, but he was free from the yoke of the Church. God’s omnipotence excludes all choice on man’s part. God’s omniscience is the fundamental fact. From all eternity He sees all events, even the most trifling: hence they must happen. If there is Providence, there is no free will; and if there is free will, there is no Providence. This the Bible proves. It is noteworthy that in the De Libero Arbitrio Erasmus appeals to authority, and it is no less noteworthy that he also appeals to reason, to the liberty of the individual to search and see in the Scriptures whether these things were so. Luther had often employed the Austinian distinction between the “inner” and the “outer” Word of God. Therein he was influenced by the mystical conception of the separation between the Scriptures and the Word of God. In practice, however, the distinction disappeared, for to him the inner was bound up with the outer. The secret and the manifest will of God were not similarly reconciled. Luther argues: “All that He has made, He moves, impels, and urges forward with the force of His omnipotence, which none can escape or alter; all must yield compliance and obedience according to the nature of the power conferred on them by God.”

Long before Calvin and the Jansenists, he exposed the powerlessness of reason. Occam and Biel had exposed it before him, and their influence is marked in Luther’s thought. His antithesis of faith and reason, the absolute sovereignty of the will of God, which renders just what He wills, the absolute dominion of God over all His creatures—these are all Nominalist doctrines. Man, he conceived, was absolutely passive so far as his salvation was concerned. He emphasizes the absence of any co-operation on man’s part in his justification, which is effected by faith alone. “This then is what we assert: Man neither does nor attempts anything in order to remain in this kingdom, but both are works of the Spirit in us, who, without any effort on our part, creates us anew and preserves us in this state.… It is He who preaches through us, who takes pity upon the needy and comforts the sorrowful. But what part is there for free will to play? What is left for it to do? Nothing, absolutely nothing.” The doctrine of justification and of absolute predestination only are able to give peace.

To accept unquestioningly God’s revelations of truth, however irrational they appear, is as much a duty as to submit uncomplainingly to His absolute decrees, however harsh they seem. There is no difference between him and Calvin on this point, though there is between him and Melanchthon. God has “an eternal hatred towards men, not merely a hatred of the demerits and works of free will, but a hatred which existed even before the world was made.” This grim Deity inflicts punishment upon those who do not deserve it. He has two Wills, His secret Will, and His revealed Will. These two do not always coincide, and it is obvious that no investigation of the secret Will is possible. Luther admits that the latter becomes entirely arbitrary. The demand that God should act, he firmly believes, as we think it right, is equivalent to calling Him to account for being God. We must believe that He is just and good, even when He transgresses the codes of Aristotle and Justinian. Shall we consider it wrong that He hardens whom He wishes to harden, and has mercy on whom He wills to have mercy? It is wicked to attempt to judge God’s secret inscrutable action. It is better to trust to God than our own free will.

Sometimes it seems amazing that such masterful men as Luther and Calvin believed that their will was the slave of God’s. But are not all founders of creeds determinists at bottom? “Since God,” Luther maintains, “has taken my salvation upon Himself and wills to save me, not by my own works but by His grace and mercy, I am certain and secure that no devil and no misfortune can tear me out of His hands.” No infallible Church could give such a tone of confidence as this belief which was the foundation of all that either Luther or Calvin accomplished. Each rejoiced in the inspiring conviction that he was raising not only himself but his nation from a lesser to a larger perfection. It was the thrill of joy in this experience which gave them the unconquering energy of desire. The theory of the enslaved will, instead of paralysing activity, furnished a thousand times a stronger incentive to renewed labour, for it was no longer they who laboured, but God Himself. The joy of the Lord was their strength. Once God had justified them by faith, they were simply passive instruments in His hands. In practice the passivity disappeared, for God was henceforth working in them and through them. Could there be a greater stimulus to untiring exertion? History records none other.

Whoever sets up free will cheats Christ of all his merit. Whoever advocated free will brings death and the Devil into the world. Far from troubling us, the knowledge that God alone acts in us ought to be the sweetest of consolations. Think of the dilemma of the indeterminist. “The human will stands like a saddle-horse between the two. If God mounts into the saddle, man wills and goes forward as God wills … but if the Devil is the horseman, then man wills and acts as the Devil wills. He has no power to turn to the one or other of the two riders and offer himself to him, but the riders fight to obtain possession of the animal.” Let us rather thank God, who has discharged for us the heavy task of our salvation, and who repels in us the attacks of the demons which our feeble will could not resist even for a moment. “All that I have done,” he exclaims, “was not the result of my own will: this God knows, and the world too should have known it long ago. Hence what I am, and by what spirit and council I was drawn into the controversy, is God’s business.” For more than ten years his conscience had demanded, How can you assault the ancient teaching of all men and of the Church, which had been confirmed by the saints, martyrs, and miracles? The sole answer is the teaching of the De Servo Arbitrio. “I do not think,” he confesses, “any one has ever had to fight with this objection as I had. Even to me it seemed incredible that the impregnable stronghold which had so long withstood the storms should fall. I adjure God and swear by my own soul that had I not been driven, had I not been forced by my own insight and the evidence of things, my resistance would not have ceased to this day.”

General practice and general belief indicate that there is free will. Seemingly, he admits, this is so. He is so firmly persuaded that the strands drawn by Divine Omnipotence around the will are of such a nature as not to be perceptible and therefore can be ignored. We believe ourselves to be free, and do not feel any constraint because we surrender ourselves willingly to be guided by God. This, however, is due to the exceptional fineness of the threads which set the human machine in motion. It is easy to understand why twelve years afterwards the author spoke of the De Servo Arbitrio as the only book, except the Catechism, he would be sorry to see perish. When it perished much of its system went with it. For his determinism is simply a deduction from his doctrine of justification by faith alone.

The heart formed Luther, the head Erasmus. The mysticism of St. Austin moulded the one, the classics the other. The African Father felt his theology, and so did his German follower. The main question with Luther, as with Newman, is the salvation of his soul. The main question with Erasmus is the certainty of truth. To Luther the Law reveals the beginnings of the knowledge of all things, human as well as divine. The truth is that Luther as little requires a general theory as an average Englishman, whereas Erasmus cannot live without such a theory. The humanist resists the natural tendency of the Hellenic mind to dualism. There is a unity which excludes all difference: that is Luther’s. There is also a unity which includes all difference: that is Erasmus’s. The warmth of Luther’s feelings is as evident as the coldness of Erasmus’s. Luther, like Charles James Fox, excites the emotions of men: Erasmus, like Edmund Burke, fills their mind. Luther can see the danger of admitting that the will is free: he cannot see the far graver danger of refusing to admit its freedom. Erasmus is as much impressed by the authority of reason as the Cambridge Platonists, especially Whichcote and Culverwel. The Alexandrines, notably Clement and Origen, proclaiming that nothing is to be believed which is unworthy of God, subject Revelation to the test of reason. Faith requires reason, reason requires faith; and their ideal of Christianity combines these two potent factors of all spiritual life. To Clement, as to Erasmus, there is no antithesis between faith and knowledge, between reason and revelation. The choice between the life of thought and the life of action is a difficult one to make. Whoever chooses the one is apt to wish he had chosen the other, and this is especially true of the student. For him the senate is at least as profitable as the study: so Cicero, and so Luther and Burke were to find it. The genius of Erasmus, to the loss of his immediate practical influence, preferred other flights.

Sir Henry Maine points out the impressive fact that the Greeks were never embarrassed as were the Latins by questions relating to free will and necessity. Erasmus could not help regarding the image of God in man as his possession for ever, and therefore he believed in a final unity, an organic tie between the two. Luther, on the other hand, regarded man as one though, through the fall of Adam, he had this image defaced yet remained in a mould on which the Creator could, and did, exert irresistible pressure. Were words invented to express disagreement? Philologically such a view is, of course, untenable, yet when no one loathes a word no one loves it intensely. Words embody ideals, and for ideals men are ready to die. Who will suffer for matters of fact? Who will not suffer for matters of faith? Every one admits that two and two make four, but no one has ever fought and died for this mathematical truth. But for the view that the will is absolutely God’s, men have fought and men have died at the stake. Dante pours scorn on Celestine V, the man guilty of the great refusal. The opportunity came to Luther, and he seized it. He gave his will unconditionally to God, surrendering himself to Divine guidance. God’s Will was greater, grander than his own, and in its power he cheerfully acquiesced. The moment, however, the surrender was complete was the very moment in which Luther began to realize that his work was not his, but God’s, and this realization bestowed on him the gift of unflagging purpose.

Luther’s trouble was St. Austin’s. If election is determined by merit—and it does not matter whether merit arises from works or from faith—then free will, not grace, is the essential condition of salvation. To Luther as to St. Austin this notion was abhorrent. To them grace followed election: election is therefore the essential condition of salvation, and this depends entirely on the will of God. Just as the exigencies of controversy forced Pelagius to emphasize unduly our capacity, so St. Austin felt obliged to disparage it unduly. Erasmus experienced the force of the former temptation slightly, whereas Luther ever experienced the force of the latter exceedingly.

The quietist in all ages leans to the side of Luther. In the third canto of the Paradiso of Dante, according to Piccarda:

In His Will is our peace. To this all things

By Him created, or by nature made,

As to a central Sea, self-motion brings.

Luther had tried—and tried in vain—to achieve his own righteousness. The result was what St. Paul expressed in the words, “Who shall deliver me out of the body of this death?” The reformer accepted the righteousness of Christ and deliverance came. Like St. Paul, he can triumphantly exclaim, “I can do all things in Him that strengtheneth me.” They that wait on the Lord truly renew their strength. Luther now ran and was not wearied, for faith in Jesus Christ sustained him. Insisting as he does on the inseparability of faith and hope, Luther is quite content to separate faith and love. Such faith is closely related to that passiveness Wordsworth attractively sets forth as part of our attitude to the world of nature:

Nor less I deem that there are powers

Which of themselves our minds impress;

That we can feed this mind of ours

In a wise passiveness.

Think you, mid all this mighty sum

Of things for ever speaking,

That nothing of itself will come,

But we must still be seeking?

In striking lines Faber expresses the Lutheran conception:

I wish to have no wishes left,

But to leave all to Thee;

And yet I wish that Thou shouldst will

That which I wish should be.

Luther’s opinions are not far removed from the modern scientific theories which regard man as a machine, though a most skilfully constructed one. The will is caused by cerebral molecular movements over which man has no control. He is not moved hither and thither by a self distinct from the material forces feeding the machine. Huxley compares man to a very cunningly devised clock, whose face with the information upon it corresponds to consciousness which presents us with thoughts, emotions, volitions. Just as we know that the hour and the minute hand of the clock, which mark the time, are obedient and caused by hidden forces and inner movements, whose action they serve to measure and visibly symbolize, so our consciousness but symbolizes the mysterious springs and inner movements of the machinery of the brain and nerves, by which in like manner states of consciousness are finally caused. Luther, however, felt what Lucretius felt when he portrays for us the seizure of our will by some mighty and invisible hand “wrenching us backward into his,” though, of course, to the reformer the hand was none other than the hand of God. He was too much a man of the sixteenth century to employ any but Biblical arguments. Now and then in the course of his career he appeals to nature, but here he ignores such forces as heredity, education, and the constant pressure of circumstance. He felt that his work he must do and no other, and this feeling came from the strength of the motive within, but not from the strength of his own free will. According to tradition, when he appeared before the Diet of Worms, 1521, he resolutely held, “Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me.”

Is it right, from the Lutheran standpoint, to punish a man who commits murder? “As if,” Bishop Butler remarks, “the necessity which is supposed to destroy the injustice of the murder would not also destroy the injustice of punishing it.” Man has, if not will, a certain directive power. He possesses a practical freedom, the freedom of working towards a desired end. Stoic or Islamic resignation is not demanded of him. We are free, the scientist proclaims, and knowledge is our emancipator. Luther was free, but his freedom was achieved by God alone. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is,” he gratefully quotes, “there is liberty.” In 1524 he wrote to the princes of Saxony: “Your princely graces should not restrain the office of the word. Men should be allowed confidently and freely to preach what they can and against whom they will, for, as I have said, there must be sects and the word of God must be in the field.… If their spirit is right, it will not be afraid of us and will stand its ground. If ours is right, it will not be afraid of them nor of any. We should let men have free course.”








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