Monday, July 14, 2008

Undogmatic Christianity: Erasmus vis-a-vis Luther

At the moment, I cannot recall the source from which I jotted down this citation. Perhaps it will come to me later. And if, for the sake of comparison, you'd like to see an example of a contemporary sympathy with Erasumus' love for peace over religious dogma, check out this little essay. In it Christianity is identified with peace, not with doctrine.

The history of human thought knows of cases where two great men, occupied with the same problems, are simply unable to understand each other. They are unable, to grasp – to use Erasmus’ word – one another’s ideas. They talk to each other, but as it were on different wave lengths. No mutual understanding seems to be possible.

A case in point in our time is the correspondence between Harnack and his former student Barth after the appearance of the latter’s Commentary in Romans. There is a certain truth in Barth’s saying that they are not the worst theologians who have simply not got the ability to re-think the thoughts of others.

But this does not explain the depth of the contrast between Erasmus and Luther. For Luther knew what Erasmus meant to say. He saw deeper than anybody else what was at stake. He saw behind Erasmus’ concept of an undogmatic Christianity the coming neo-paganism of the modern world. This is the reason why in his great reply in De servo arbitrio [On the Bondage of the Will], before entering the discussion of the individual Bible passages, he attacks his adversary’s basic understanding of Christianity.

Erasmus had confessed his dislike of not only Luther’s firm “assertions” but of any religious dogma whatever: “You would” says Luther, “take up the Skeptic’s position if the inviolable authority of Holy Scripture and the Church’s decisions permitted you to do so, so little do you like assertions. What a Proteus the man is to talk about ‘inviolable authority’ and ‘the Church’s decisions’ as if you had a vast respect for the Scriptures and the Church, when in the same breath you tell us you wish you had the liberty to be a skeptic” (WA 18,603, quoted from Packer-Johnston, p. 68).

Over against Erasmus’ undogmatic Christianity Luther emphasizes in the moat powerful way that Christianity is essentially a dogmatic religion and that he who destroys the Christian dogma or tried to play it down, as Erasmus does in his “philosophy of Christ”, destroys the Christian faith: Tolle assertiones, et Christianismum tulisti, “Take away the assertions, and you take away Christianity.”

Why, the Holy Spirit is given to Christians from heaven in order that He may glorify Christ and in them confess Him even unto death – and is this not assertion, to die for what you confess and assert?” (WA 18, 603; Packer 67). “The Holy Spirit is no skeptic.”

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