Resonance of the Modern Era: Erasmus, Luther, and the Common Apocalypse


One of the last books I read in 2019 is Michael Massing’s Fatal Discord: Erasmus, Luther, and the Fight for the Western Mind.  An odd choice, perhaps, but I have my reasons.

At over 800 pages, the book is a thoroughly detailed dual biography as well as history of the period. Luther and Erasmus aside, the period itself is worthy of study because it is, arguably, the beginning of the modern era, if for no other reason than the fact that this was the time wherein the apparent monolithic edifice of Catholic Europe—The West—began to fragment into what we now regard as normal, with its proliferation of contending ideologies, both religious and secular, the rise of the nation-state, and first irreparable chink in the armor of divinely-sanctioned autocracy. During this time was not only the first explorations and colonies in the so-called New World, but also the first inarguable advances of science in the face of tradition, and the beginnings of new economic models that today power the enterprise of the planet. Between 1492 and the end of the 16th Century, the usual arrangements and assumptions changed, evolved, died, reformed, and transmogrified almost beyond recognition, leading to the Thirty Years War which pretty well ended everything that went before, even though certain forms persisted almost to the 19th Century (and a handful to the 20th).

It could be interesting to see what might have become of all that ferment without the two chief instigators of the tectonic shifts in intellectual and religious attitudes that were the driving forces behind it. Without Luther, the Church of Rome might have remained the single religious institution of Europe.  Without Erasmus, Luther might have remained a minor irritant in the body religious. And without the two of them, the various enclaves that sprang up to nurture the nascent philosophies and sciences of the period might have had nothing around which to cohere.

Both men began their careers as monks. Erasmus, however, was an intellectual, a lover of language and old books, who wanted an opportunity to visit other centers of intellectual ferment and do his own work. He managed to gain permission to leave his Augustinian cloister and travel. He studied in Paris, which he loathed because the environs were dirty, the food terrible, and his health never robust.

Wanting never again to be trapped inside a monastic life, he knew he had to make some kind of an income, and he took his first forays into writing and publishing.

Through his writings and his interest in primary texts and languages, he began the serious work of reassessing the Bible, which at that time was a dangerous idea. The Vulgate dominated Christian worship and while certain scholars within the Church understood that it was somewhat corrupted from its original incarnations, it had become wired into the complex system by centuries of use and tradition. What Erasmus’ instigated was a new undertaking that would change fundamental understandings of what the Bible actual said. We still do this today. It’s called Textual Criticism and it is a very rich field of essential linguistic archaeology. Not only what the words may actually mean, but also—and this was the dangerous part—who wrote them and when were they included.

Erasmus produced one of the first fresh translations from the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts still extant and available and published them with extensive glosses explaining his methods and the provenance of what he had found. It is perhaps an understatement to say that this caused controversy.

As well, though, his work spurred the development of a new interest in ancient languages. Europe had already been subjected to the discovery of work thought lost, works by the Greeks and Romans. With the Spanish Reconquista, a flood of ancient works came over the Pyrenees and proliferated. Scholars had long been trying to make Aristotle and Plato conform to current Christian thought, and Aristotle had even been somewhat rehabilitated into a Good Pagan because his work proved so useful in scholastic pursuits. Now Erasmus demonstrated the utility of learning those languages in perhaps finding clearer meanings in Scripture, and whole new centers of learning coalesced. For the span of most of his life, Erasmus was a superstar academic.

Enter Luther, who early on discovered in Erasmus nourishment to feed his own questing urges. During the first part of his career, he was an ardent Erasmian and embraced the idea of studying Scripture through the lens of the languages in which it was written originally. His interest coincided with his desire to purge the Church of corruption, in this instance in the form of the Indulgence.

(An aside. The Indulgence, a device devised by the Roman Church to gather funds in exchange for, ostensibly, shortening or even bypassing time spent in Purgatory, was the match that lit the fuse of the Reformation, and yet I have had many conversations with Catholics who had no idea what they were and when explained to them thought it was ridiculous, even as one can still, I believe, buy one today. )

Many Germans felt the Indulgence was a scam of sorts, one perpetrated mainly on them by the Church. The salesmen were apparently overly aggressive in those territories. Luther was expressing a common perception when he railed against them.  He took it upon himself to challenge the Church. He had not been the first to challenge Church authority, especially Papal authority, but until him those who had managed to successfully raise such challenges to the point of creating movements for possible reform had all been arrested and put to death. Prior to Luther, the most prominent had been Jan Hus, whose memory still informed an underground pool of dissent in Bohemia.

What made Luther more dangerous was the sudden availability of the new translations by Erasmus and the very idea of returning to sources to find Biblical justifications for—

Well, for anything. Luther embraced the language studies with vigor, brought scholars to Wittenberg, and began his own forensic study of Scripture. At which point he began to question Papal authority for an entire slate of practices for which he could find no Biblical support.

What began then as a fairly simple protest against a kind of extortion quickly developed into a general movement against Papal overreach, pitting, essentially, the Bible against 1200 years of bureaucratic tradition. Luther quickly became the center of a storm that had been building for decades if not centuries and found himself unexpectedly at the head of a Reform Movement.

He wrote at a furious pace, an outpouring of opinion and preachment that did not slow for years. It was made more effective by a growing hometown printing industry that put just about everything it could get its hands on out in broadsheets, pamphlets, and books. It ceased being something that could be contained within the boundaries of the Church by the very public exposure the presses provided.

At this point it is impossible not to see the parallels to the present. The printers were the social media of their day. There were no libel or slander laws to speak of and there was no public filter other than the Church, whose historic method was silence.  What began as academic studies by Erasmus (and others in his mold) now exploded into highly politicized position statements demanding action.

Early in this, Luther and Erasmus held each other in mutual regard. Luther praised Erasmus for opening the field. He yearned for Erasmus’ support.

For his part, Erasmus wanted as little to do with overt reform as possible. He was aware of the physical dangers of too firm a statement. Erasmus hated being attacked while Luther relished it. Erasmus wanted to do his studies and be left alone while Luther wanted to slay dragons. The two men could not have been more different temperamentally, yet they were intellectually bound.

This did not last. Luther wanted allies. He wanted support. He had no use for fence-sitters. The longer Erasmus tried to remain above the fray, the less patience Luther had with him. The strains began to show.

The break came over the central tenet of Luther’s new gospel: grace. Luther decided that the only path to salvation was faith.  Works meant nothing. One could not work one’s way into God’s grace any more than one could buy into heaven. And people had no say in it whatsoever. They had to simply have faith and then hope.  Eventually, this position led him to dismiss the idea of free will, and on that Erasmus could not concur. The divide opened on that point and the rest of 16th Century history turned on to which camp who belonged.

Massing does a superb job of showing the consequences of all this on the ground, among the worst of which was the Peasant’s War, an early labor strike that turned into a general rebellion, and resulted in tens of thousands of dead.

Luther, as time passed, revealed himself as a ferociously impatient man who could not handle criticism or find common ground in debate.  Once he realized his power, he became less and less tolerant of differences. He hounded competitors into exile, browbeat his subordinates, castigated the authorities, and responded to attack with a vitriol that seems the opposite of “christian spirit.”  When the Peasant’s War erupted, he sided with the authorities and advocated in writing that all good Christians must, given the opportunity, kill those in rebellion.  He thought he could by sheer force of will impose his ideal state of Christian piety on the world.

But the revolution he began got away from him, as such things usually do. Others picked up his ideas, decided, often, that he was too lax, and imposed their own brand on the new breakaway movements, like John Calvin. As he grew older, there was a “Thank you, Herr Luther, for starting all this, but we’ll take it from here.”

Erasmus, for his part, tried desperately to maintain his independence in a world that was rapidly becoming partisan in the extreme. Popes and monarchs pressured him to take a stand on the question of Luther. He was a scholar, he argued, and he was afraid for his life.

Massing follows their paths and traces the results of their various interactions with religious leaders, their communities, and, from time to time, each other. The two men never met yet between them they set the parameters of the next four centuries of cultural realignment.

At the beginning of this I said that it was an odd choice but I have my reasons.  I was educated in a Lutheran primary school, from third to eighth grade. For a time I considered myself a Lutheran, but it didn’t last. One could say that I had a fey streak of Erasmian sentiment that eventually drew me into the academic side of religious study, which eventually eroded my loyalties and dissolved any investment I had in the subject. Luther’s adamant stand on faith alone I found unsupportable. But what initially drove a wedge between Lutheranism and me was the deep illogic and the social consequences of such a position.

What Massing’s book brings to light is the problem central to all the various sects of what came to be known as Protestantism in the 16th and 17th Centuries and lingers to this day as an inescapably innate requirement in so many of them—the need, the demand, not so much for faith, but for conformity.  John Calvin brought this to the issue as clearly as anyone and his strain of Protestantism informed so many later churches.  None of them could much abide what we now call diversity and certainly privately-held convictions and personal faith was suspect. In reaction to horrific revolts and purges that followed the advent of the New Gospel, the Catholic Church became just as conformist. And when Henry VIII assumed control of the Church of England, there was the same insistence on conformity.

Here, in the first couple of decades of what certainly was a necessary schism, we see the seeds of what grew into monsters of social constraint and intellectual rigidity.

And yet, Erasmus, with his insistence of learning and logic and the willingness to alter one’s ideas in the face of new information, began the other half of that revolution, the one that eventually produced the liberal West with its valuing of knowledge and education and its openness to the new.  The revolution that built a world wherein people could hold differing opinions and not be killed for them. Erasmus faded during the 16th Century, during the rise of the Protestant churches, but in the long run superseded the intolerance endemic to the reformers inspired by Luther. Because of Erasmus we have Galileo and Newton, Kant and Locke and Mill. It could be argued that because of Erasmus we have a civilization.

Despite their profound doctrinal differences, the two men shared many of the prejudices of their day—neither could tolerate the Jews and in Luther’s vitriolic attacks on them we can see the basis for the later horrors of antisemitism emergent in the German state.  Both also shared a conviction that things had to change. Erasmus wanted change from within the prevailing systems and remained a Roman Catholic all his life. Luther quickly came to believe change would only come by tearing things apart. Erasmus feared the results of such a tearing and he was validated by what happened when 1200 years of social continuity through the Church was broken. Like smashing a dam, a torrent of pent-up resentment, much of which had little to do with religion, made a desolation.

Ironically, Luther, watching it all unfold, railed against the anti-intellectualism he saw spreading.  It was all too resonant of what we have around us today.

To know where we are, we have to go back and see where we began.  This is a good place to start.

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