Martin Luther: Shaping and Defining the Reformation, 1521-1532

By Martin Brecht; James L. Schaaf | Go to book overview
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V

The Conflict with
Erasmus of Rotterdam
over Free Will

Because of the struggle with the enthusiasts and the Peasants' War, another conflict that arose did not come to a head, but it was one that Luther would not be able to avoid. Erasmus's Dialogue on Free Will had appeared in September 1524; in it he publicly attacked the central point of Luther's theology, his understanding of human nature. This was the beginning of what Luther had wanted to avoid if at all possible: he had attracted the open animosity of the most respected scholar in central Europe at that time, and his critique was directed at the very center of Luther's theology. Luther had to take a stand, and it was clear that here he was facing a fundamental confrontation upon which everything depended. It is true that for Luther, in many respects, this remained a limited controversy, and it also did not involve the masses. However, that much more firmly did it draw the spirits into its course—which has really continued even to the present, for here what was under debate was the difference between a humanistic understanding of man and the Reformation understanding.


1. ERASMUS WRITES AGAINST LUTHER

The conflict did not come as a surprise. In Erasmus's edition of the Greek New Testament, Luther had noticed in 1516 that Erasmus understood Paul differently than he did. Humanism's high regard for a person's moral capabilities was incompatible with Luther's teaching of justification. Nevertheless, Luther and Erasmus also had significant things in common, e.g., an exact, literal exegesis of the Bible and a critique of ecclesiastical abuses. As soon as Luther appeared, Erasmus astutely recognized his extraordinary significance for the essential reform of Christendom and, as his vast correspondence indicates, continued to keep his eye on him. This reform was close to his heart, and consequently he could not be unconcerned about the form it was taking. Although he rejected Luther's actions as too impetuous, he thought his critique of the church was generally justified, and he even attempted at the end of 1520 to settle Luther's conflict with the pope. He was never one of Luther's partisans, as his Catholic opponents suspected, and after 1521 he

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