February 7, 2017


Desiderius Erasmus (1466/1469-1536); portrait (1523) by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/1498-1543) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

(Seven Parts)
Part VII: Erasmus’ Hyperaspistes (1526): Luther’s Dissembling, Arrogance, Polemics, Etc.

From: Peter Macardle and Clarence H. Miller, translators, Charles Trinkhaus, editor, Collected Works of Erasmus, Vol. 76: Controversies: De Libero Arbitrio / Hyperaspistes I, Univ. of Toronto Press, 1999.

* * * * *

Now I will show you the counsel of your wordsmiths, who thought to themselves as follows: . . . ‘Erasmus . . . is eager for glory; hence we will always hammer at the point that he knows nothing, and we will everywhere spit on him as a person of no account and overwhelm him with scorn and disgust. That will really burn him up, but in order to do this credibly, we will mix in some praise, we will pretend to be his friends, we will put on a show of pity for him rather than hatred; we will attribute to him intelligence and supreme eloquence, so that when the reader sees our candour on these points, he will think we would also attribute other qualities to him if he deserved them. Then by every possible means we will increase and intensify his burden of suspicion and ill will, fashioning our speech as if he agreed with us but pretends not to, partly out of fear, partly out of his love for riches; we will consider the sophists, compared with him, to be far more preferable; and then we will act out the play so as to curry favour in both theatres, both that of the “brothers,” who have hated him for some time now, and that of the sophists and pharisees, who have long since been hostile to him because of good learning. Finally we will mix in a good dose of abuse and insults, so that, if we cannot wear out the frail and timid old man with our loquacity or overthrow him with our arguments, we will at least wear him down with verbal abuse.’

Such advice, so straightforward and evangelical, would be immediately detected in your book by a reader of any intelligence, but to your adherents it seemed very clever. In this design who does not see the embrace of the scorpion about to infix his sting? Who does not perceive the poisoned cup smeared with honey? ‘Worshipful Erasmus, my dear Erasmus, most beloved Erasmus, most excellent Erasmus, endowed with the highest intelligence, with the greatest gifts, with supreme eloquence, to whom good learning owes so much, etc.’ Here indeed is the embrace, here is the honey. But this same praiseworthy Erasmus presently writes so wickedly that not even the impious sophists can put up with him; he blasphemes against God; and worse yet, he doesn’t believe anything at all, but inwardly he is a secret Epicurus or an atheist Lucian, saying in his heart, ‘There is no God, or if there is, he does not care about the affairs of mortals.’

This is the sting, this is the deadly poison, this is the toad’s venom. If this book is not everywhere awash with such witticisms, then I am as lying as a Cretan. If, on the other hand, such accusations and many others are everywhere hurled, hammered at, and harped on, show me (I beg you) anyone against whom you have written more venomously. And this very inconsistency of your speech reveals the insincerity of your heart. . . . Do you think people are such blockheads that they do not understand by what spirit you are being led when you write such things, blowing hot and cold from the same mouth, offering honey and poison in the same goblet, presenting bread with one hand, hurling stones with the other? (pp. 104-106)

Your eloquence is not inconsiderable; would that it were matched by a sober and sincere attitude! (p. 106)

Now what sort of an accolade do you bestow on me when you attribute to me supreme eloquence joined with supreme ignorance of the subject matter? (p. 106)

And what you attribute to me in the beginning you take away from me in the course of the disputation, where you make Erasmus so stupid that he cannot see what is clearer than daylight. Time after time you accuse this most eloquent writer of being ignorant of rhetoric: he does not understand the central point at issue; he often says what is irrelevant or what completely undermines his case; he gives a bad definition, a worse division, and the worst arguments; in short, he does nothing which is not against the precepts of rhetoric. (p. 107)

Such inconsistencies demonstrate sufficiently that you are not saying what you think. And so, once eloquence has been taken away, all that is left is the intelligence which you initially attribute to me. But in the course of the disputation, my Discussion is dumbfounded and blind, she snores and dreams, she neither remembers nor understands what others say or even what she herself utters. So much for Erasmus’ intelligence! This is the way authors vacillate, Luther, when they do not derive their language from the truth but instead cleverly make up everything they say.

You are no more consistent when, in the prefatory remarks at the beginning of your work, you say the authority of Erasmus is not to be scorned, and then in the course of the work you do nothing but make Erasmus a joke and a plaything, holding him up as a laughing-stock to the whole world. (p. 107)

For in your commentary explicating the Epistle to the Galatians, I am cried up as ‘the top man in theology and a victor over ill will’ — that is what you say in the preface . . . in the course of the work I am frequently singled out for honour: in one place Erasmus is correct, ‘as always.’ . . . In another I am ‘the most excellent Erasmus.’ In another you are very happy to agree with your friend Erasmus. Once more in the appendix which was added by Commodus Britannus, you take second place but I am awarded the highest praise in the restoration of the gospel. I will not set out here the hundreds of letters by your adherents in which I am cried up as the prince of theologians. But the minute I dared to open my mouth against your teaching, I immediately became entirely ignorant of theology. . . . If your judgment is so vacillating, who will have any confidence in it? (p. 109)

At that time you were luring me with flattery to join your league, but now that you are vexed by A Discussion you try to make Erasmus as blind as a bat. But just as I was not taken in by those high-sounding praises, so too now I am not even the least bit disturbed by this vituperation of yours. I knew that those praises were not truly meant, just as this vituperation was dictated by hatred and anger. But at that time, when I was vaunted as supreme in theology, I became not so much as an iota the more learned; so too now, when I am proclaimed by a similar hyperbole to know nothing at all, I am not rendered a bit more ignorant. (p. 110)

There is in print a letter of Melanchthon in which he attributes a great deal to you, but me he does not hesitate to rank higher than all the ancients. So too a member of your school, a certain Erasmus Alber . . . makes me equal or even superior to St. Jerome. If all the ancient Fathers, if Jerome himself knew nothing about theology, if they and the church were totally blind, I am sorry for them, and I can put up with my blindness more easily, since I share it with such extraordinary men. (pp. 110-111)

We have the fruit of your spirit: it has come down to bloody slaughter, and we fear yet worse disasters unless God favours us and averts them. You say that such conflict is inherent in the word. I think it makes some difference how God’s word is preached, supposing for the moment that it is God’s word you are teaching. You do not acknowledge these rebels, I imagine, but they acknowledge you, and it is already clear that many who boast that they are evangelicals have been the cruelest instigators of revolution . . . to be sure, through your savage booklet against the peasants you deflected suspicion away from yourself, but even so you could not keep people from believing that you provided the occasion for these uprisings by your pamphlets, especially the ones written in German . . . against monks and bishops, in favour of evangelical freedom, against human tyranny. I still do not have so low an opinion of you, Luther, as to think you intended your designs to come to this, but nevertheless, long ago when you began this whole story, I conjectured from the violence of your pen that this is how it would ened; and that is why in my first letter to you I advised you to be upright in dealing with this business and take care not to write anything in an uncontrolled or divisive fashion. (p. 114)

[see my highly related, copiously documented paper: Martin Luther’s Violent, Inflammatory Rhetoric and its Relationship to the German Peasants’ Revolt (1524-1525) (+ Part II)]

. . . you require us to believe that you do nothing of your own free will but rather under the guidance of the spirit of Christ, and you are indignant if we do not immediately abandon the teaching embraced and held by the Catholic church for so many centuries in the past and swear allegiance to you. I never had any inclination to join your conspiracy. (p. 142)

As for me, Luther, I have enough faith in Holy Scripture and the decisions of the church to hope for my salvation from the mercy of God, even without any help from your faith. In the future, therefore, do not claim what belongs to God, do not make pronouncements about a person’s spirit, but rather examine your own spirit carefully lest it should turn out you have a rider different from the one you proclaim you have. (pp. 144-145)

You foist off such super-sophistry on us simple souls, boasting at the same time to the whole world that you have such knowledge in theology that I doubt any of the apostles ever claimed as much. (p. 153)

For never to make a mistake, never not to know, never to regret having said something is peculiar to such a Gnostic and Stoic knower as you. But now tell me this: how are you consistent when you claim I am utterly ignorant of the truth and yet you charge me with the unforgivable sin? But no one who sins through ignorance is held accountable for his offence . . . Therefore my ignorance exonerates me from this charge, but you, who are ignorant of nothing, have good reason to be afraid that you will have this charge levelled against you, since you stoutly rescind the decisions of the church and assert anything and everything. Again, how can you reconcile the fact that I know nothing with the notion that, though I agree with you, I defend divergent positions to curry the favour of princes? You want to make me out to be a scoundrel who knowingly impugns the truth out of fear of princes, and at the same time you want to make me utterly ignorant of the truth. . . . since you are always in the grip of an uncontrollable urge to slander, you follow now one impulse, now another, and so make statements which are inconsistent with one another. . . . But how do such things square with the Spirit of Christ . . .? (pp. 154-155)

For in this whole first part of your book, what else have you done, I ask you, except triumph, lord it over the defeated, show your battle-trophies, and sing paeans before you have even come up to our battleline? (p. 158)

I am so accustomed to such insults that I would almost take pleasure in them if it were not that I fear this savage attitude of yours will enmesh the world in the worst sort of disasters. For what Erasmus loses is of no importance whatever, as long as the gospel reigns. . . . If we imagine that the princes treated their peasants very tyrannically (and it is not clear to me that they did), whch was more advantageous to the peasants: to bear with their very unjust lords or to experience the effects of a rebellion in which so many thousands perished and the injury was so far from being removed that the yoke was doubled and rendered even more grievous? . . . For even if that cause of yours is as important as you make it out tobe, nevertheless that misplaced abusiveness of yours, which spares no mortal at all, has as its reult that you not only accomplish nothing but also that you double and exacerbate the tyranny you strive to eliminate and you advance those whom you wish to suppress. (pp. 170-171)

. . . this seditious wantonness of your pen also brings destruction down on all good things. The people are stirred up against bishops and princes; magistrates are hard pressed to put down mobs eager to revolt; cities which were once joined by very close ties now quarrel among themselves with fierce hatred; now you can hardly find any man you can safely trust; all freedom has been taken away. For you have not removed but rather you have aggravated the tyranny (for so you usually call it) of princes, bishops, theologians, and monks. All deeds and words are immediately subject to suspicion, and it is not allowed even to open one’s mouth about points which once could be debated pro and con. The slavery which you set out to shake off has been redoubled; the yoke is heavier; the chains are not shaken off but tightened. (pp. 293-294)

Liberal studies, together with languages and good writing, are everywhere disregarded because you have loaded them down with ill will. The outstanding monuments of the ancients are rejected, and in their place the world is filled with quarrelsome and defamatory books which infect the reader with poison and disease. I know some good and learned men who at first were not unwilling to read your lucubrations with a desire to know and judge them. They were finally forced to reject them because they confessed that they were infected by the many grimaces, jests, witticisms, insults and unchristian slanders with which you contaminate your doctrine, not unlike those whose occupation is to stuff capons or pheasants with garlic. And at first these things have a certain titillation and we itch to read them, but when they gradually creep into the mind, they infect the sincerity and gentleness of the heart. And although you see how many evils this ferocity of yours has brought into the world, though you have been warned so often, even by those who wish you well, still you continually get worse and worse, both uselessly drawing into danger those who commit themselves to your faith and alienating those whom you could have attracted to you — for now I once more pretend that your doctrine is orthodox — and finally preventing this worldwide uproar, however it arose, from ever bringing forth for us some degree of beneficent tranquillity. You have drawn numberless people away from their bishops, and now they wander around like scattered sheep, having no shepherd, especially when they see that your church is shaken by so many quarrels and thrown into tumult by internal warfare. (pp. 294-295)

February 7, 2017


Desiderius Erasmus (1466/1469-1536); portrait (1523) by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/1498-1543) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

(Seven Parts)
Part VI: Erasmus’ Hyperaspistes (1526): Sola Scriptura and Perspicuity of Scripture Critiqued

From: Peter Macardle and Clarence H. Miller, translators, Charles Trinkhaus, editor, Collected Works of Erasmus, Vol. 76: Controversies: De Libero Arbitrio / Hyperaspistes I, Univ. of Toronto Press, 1999.

* * * * *

I myself prefer to have this cast of mind than that which I see characterizes certain others, so that they are uncontrollably attached to an opinion and cannot tolerate anything that disagrees with it, but twist whatever they read in Scripture to support their view once they have embraced it. (p. 120; citing his earlier Discussion, or Diatribe)

I do not condemn those who teach the people that free will exists, striving together with the assistance of grace, but rather those who discuss before the ignorant mob difficulties which would hardly be suitable in the universities. . . . to discuss those difficulties of the scholastics about notions, about reality and relations, before a mixed crowd, you should consider how much good it would do. (p. 123)

And then, as for what you say about the clarity of Scripture, would that it were absolutely true! But those who laboured mightily to explain it for many centuries in the past were of quite another opinion. (p. 129)

But if knowledge of grammar alone removes all obscurity from Sacred Scripture, how did it happen that St. Jerome, who knew all the languages, was so often at a loss and had to labour mightily to explain the prophets? Not to mention some others, among whom we find even Augustine, in whom you place some stock. Why is it that you yourself, who cannot use ignorance of languages as an excuse, are sometimes at a loss in explicating the psalms, testifying that you are following something you have dreamed up in your own mind, without condemning the opinions of others? . . . Finally, why do your ‘brothers’ disagree so much with one another? They all have the same Scripture, they all claim the same spirit. And yet Karlstadt disagrees with you violently. So do Zwingli and Oecolampadius and Capito, who approve of Karlstadt’s opinion though not of his reasons for it. Then again Zwingli and Balthazar are miles apart on many points. To say nothing of images, which are rejected by others, but defended by you, not to mention the rebaptism rejected by your followers but preached by others, and passing over in silence the fact that secular studies are condemned by others but defended by you. Since you are all treating the subject matter of Scripture, if there is no obscurity in it, why is there so much disagreement among you? On this point there is no reason for you to rail at the wretched sophists: Augustine teaches that obscurity sometimes arises from unknown or ambiguous words, sometimes from the nature of the subject matter, at times from allegories and figures of speech, at times from passages which contradict one another, at least according to what the language seems to say. [De doctrina christiana 2.6.7, 2.9.15] And he gives the reason why God wished such obscurity to find a place in the Sacred Books. [De doctrina christiana 4.8.22] (pp. 130-131)

Furthermore, where you challenge me and all the sophists to bring forward even one obscure or recondite passage from the Sacred Books which you cannot show is quite clear, I only wish you could make good on your promise! We will bring to you heaps of difficulties and we will forgive you for calling us blinder than a bat, provided you clearly explicate the places where we are at a loss. But if you impose on us the law that we believe that whatever your interpretation is, that is what Scripture means, your associates will not put up with such a law and they stoutly cry out against you, affirming that you interpret Scripture wrongly about the Eucharist. Hence it is not right that we should grant you more authority than is granted by the principal associates of your confession. (p. 132)

. . . how did it happen that after the gospel was preached such blindness remained in the church of God that there was no one after the apostles except Jan Hus and Wyclif who did not get stuck in places all through the Scriptures? (p. 133)

. . . even your own writings and your dissenting adherents refute what you assert. (p. 134)

Nor did I say that some places in Scripture offer difficulties in order to deter anyone from reading it, but rather to encourage readers to study it acutely and to discourage the inexperienced from making snap judgments. (p. 135)

But still, if I were growing weary of this church, as I wavered in perplexity, tell me, I beg you in the name of the gospel, where would you have me go? To that disintegrated congregation of yours, that totally dissected sect? Karlstadt has raged against you, and you in turn against him. And the dispute was not simply a tempest in a teapot but concerned a very serious matter. Zwingli and Oecolampadius have opposed your opinion in many volumes. And some of the leaders of your congregation agree with them, among whom is Capito. Then too what an all-out battles was fought by Balthazar and Zwingli! I am not even sure that there in that tiny little town you agree among yourselves very well. Here your disciples openly taught that the humanities are the bane of godliness, and no languages are to be learned except a bit of Greek and Hebrew, that Latin should be entirely ignored. There were those who would eliminate baptism and those who would repeat it; and there was no lack of those who persecute them for it. In some places images of the saints suffered a dire fate; you came to their rescue. When you book about reforming education was published, they said that the spirit had left you and that you were beginning to write in a human spirit opposed to the gospel, and they maintained you did it to please Melanchthon. A tribe of prophets has risen up there with whom you have engaged in most bitter conflict. Finally, just as every day new dogmas appear among you, so at the same time new quarrels arise. And you demand that no one should disagree with you, although you disagree so much among yourselves about matters of the greatest importance! (pp. 143-144)

If you agreed among yourselves on your dogmas, you could accuse me of pride for not paying attention to teachings propounded by learned men with such an overwhelming consensus. As it is, since I have always adhered to the Catholic church and kept away from your fellowship, since your doctrine has been condemned by the princes of the church and the monarchs of the world, to say nothing of the censure by the universities, since you quarrel so much among yourselves, each of you claiming all the while to have the Spirit of Christ and a completely certain knowledge of Holy Scripture, how can you still . . . be outraged that an old man like me who knows nothing of theology should prefer to follow the authoritative consensus of the church rather than to join you, who dissent no less from the church than you dissent from each other? (p. 144)

Certainly no one after the apostles claimed that there was no mystery in Scripture that was not clear to him. (pp. 153-154)

Just so you, Luther, teach that whatever questions arise out of Holy Scripture ought to be handled in the presence of any person whatsoever . . . certain points . . . though they are true, can still not be spoken of before just any audience without endangering piety and concord and which should be set forth prudently. And here I place many points which you publish in the German language for uneducated people, such as the liberty of the gospel, which, if treated in judicious sermons on the right occasion, are not fruitless, but if they are treated in such sermons as yours, you see what fruit they produce. (pp. 166-167)

. . . even though I were to grant that what you teach is true, judge for yourself what contribution to piety is made by those who proclaim to the ignorant mob such things as these: there is no free will; our will has no effect but rather God works in us both our good deeds and our bad ones. (p. 167)

. . . it is possible that certain things may be in some sense true which nevertheless it would be inexpedient to proclaim before an unlearned audience. (p. 168)

. . . you offend precisely in that you continually foist off on us your interpretation as the word of God . . . in interpreting Scripture I prefer to follow the judgment of the many orthodox teachers and of the church rather than that of you alone or of your few sworn followers . . . (pp. 180-181)

And so away with this ‘word of God, word of God.’ I am not waging war against the word of God but against your assertion; nor is the word of God inconsistent with itself but rather human interpretations collide with one another. If you are influenced by the judgment of the church, what you assert is human fabrication, what you fight against is the word of God. (p. 181)

I say that those who treat such questions with arguments pro and con before an ignorant mob are like actors who perform a play not suited to everyone before an indiscriminate audience. (p. 195)

Holy Scripture, together with its figures of speech, has a language peculiar to itself. . . . just as the divine wisdom tempers its speech according to our feelings and our capacity to understand, so too the dispenser of Holy Scripture accommodates his language to the benefit of his audience . . . who ever conceded to you that figures of speech in Holy Scripture are not at all obscure as long as grammar is available, since everywhere in Genesis we are tormented by figures and the most erudite men sweat so much over the allegories of the prohets? (pp. 195-196)

But what I was after was for you to tell how we could be sure that what your adherents claim for themselves is true, especially when we see those who struggle equally to claim the Spirit for themselves disagree so violently among themselves about so many things. An easy believer is light-headed, and you would rightly find us lacking in manly constancy if we rashly defected from the universal Catholic church unless the matter was proved to us with ironclad arguments. (p. 199)

You stipulate that we should not ask for or accept anything but Holy Scripture, but you do it in such a way as to require that we permit you to be its sole interpreter, renouncing all others. Thus the victory will be yours if we allow you to be not the steward but the lord of Holy Scripture. (pp. 204-205)

. . . if they [bishops or theologians] should agree among themselves in explaining Holy Scripture, we would have something certain to follow. As it is, our heralds teach something different than you do, and your adherents disagree among themselves and even go so far as to cry out boldly against you. Where, then, even in the church, is this certain judgment by which we prove or disprove teachings drawn from Holy Scripture, a rule which is completely certain . . .? (p. 215)

. . . the second chapter of Malachi [verse 7] commands the people to ask for the Law from the mouth of a priest . . . Why then do you people not follow the advice of Malachi and ask for the Law from the mouths of priests and bishops? Moreover, what need was there to learn the Law from the mouth of a priest, since anyone of the people who knew the language and had common sense could easily understand a Law that was perfectly clear. [?] Therefore someone who orders that the Law be sought from the mouth of a priest indicates that the Law is not clear to just anyone, but rather he points out the fitting interpreter of the Law. (p. 217)

And why do we speak of the light of the gospel, if not because what is wrapped and covered up in figures in the Law is brought out into the open by the gospel? Is nothing there predicted about Christ which is not perfectly clear to all, provided they know Hebrew? Indeed, even the disciples of the Lord, after hearing so many sermons, after seeing so many miracles, after so many signs and tokens which the prophets foretold concerning Christ, did not understand Scripture until Christ opened up the meaning so that they understood Scripture. (p. 218)

At this point when will you stop throwing prophets, baptists, and apostles at us? No one doubts their Spirit, and their authority is sacrosanct. Because they had the Spirit teaching them from within, they explained what is obscure in the writings of the prophets. We were talking about your spirit and that of your followers, who profess that there is nothing in Holy Scripture which is obscure to you as long as you know grammar, and we demanded that you establish the credibility of this certainty, which you still fail to do, try as you may. (p. 219)

. . . when the Lord added ‘for those places speak of me,’ [John 5:39] he added a good deal of light, pointing out the aim of the prophecy. Just so in Acts, when Paul had taught and admonished them, they compared the scriptural passages with what had been carried out and what had been propounded to them; and there was much they would not have understood if the apostle had not supplied this additional light. Therefore I am not making the passages obscure, but rather God himself wanted there to be some obscurity in them, but in such a way that there would be enough light for the eternal salvation of everyone if he used his eyes and grace was there to help. No one denies that there is truth as clear as crystal in Holy Scripture, but sometimes it is wrapped and covered up by figures and enigmas so that it needs scrutiny and an interpreter, either because God wanted in this way to arouse us from dullness and also to set us to work, as Augustine says, or because truth is more pleasant and affects us more deeply when it has been dug out and shines forth to us through the cover of darkness than if it had been exposed for anyone at all to see . . . (pp. 219-220)

. . . if, as you teach, nothing is needed for Holy Scripture except grammar, what need is there to hear a preacher expound and interpret it? It would be enough to read out a prophet or the gospel to the common people who do not have the sacred books without explaining anything at all, unless there might perhaps be some underlying difficulty about the words. (pp. 221-222)

If Holy Scripture is perfectly clear in all respects, where does this darkness among you come from, whence arise such fights to the death about the meaning of Holy Scripture? You prove from the mysteries of Scripture that the body of the Lord is in the Eucharist physically; from the same Scripture Zwingli, Oecolampadius, and Capito teach that it is only signified. (p. 222)

You say this as if I said that all Scripture is obscure and ambiguous, though I confess that it contains a treasure of eternal and most certain truth, but in some places the treasure is concealed and not open to just anybody, no matter who. The sun is not dark if it does not appear when it is covered by clouds or if a dim-sighted person gropes about in full daylight . . . I was dealing with intricate questions which arise from Holy Scripture as it is interpreted first in one way and then in another. Here was the place you should have brought forth that most certain light of yours by which you convict the whole church of blindness. For, as to that quibble of yours that this light is always concealed in that church which is hidden and not thought to be the church, even if I granted you this (which you cannot prove), it is more probable that the holiest and also most learned men belonged to that hidden church than that you and your few adherents do. (p. 223)

The same thing also happens to you followers: Bugenhagen and Oecolampadius speak about some places with doubts and hesitation, and in the end even Philippus [Melanchthon] does, for whom there is no end to your praises. Everything which you thundered with such vehemence and lavishness against those who think there is anything obscure in Scripture recoils on the heads of your followers and even on your own. Finally, you yourself confess that obscurity occurs in the mysteries of Scripture because of ignorance about words, and you will add, I think, because of corruptions in the manuscripts, figures of speech, and places which conflict with one another. Once you admit this, all the disadvantages return which you attributed to obscurity. For it does not matter where the obscurity comes from as long as some is there. Such obscurity you certainly cannot deny. But if you eliminate all faith in those who are at a loss anywhere, you yourself are at a loss and so are your adherents, in whom you wish us to have wholehearted faith. (pp. 225-226)

And he [Paul] says there: ‘We know partially and we prophesy partially,’ and a little further on ‘Now I know partially, but then I shall know as I am known.’ [1 Cor 13:9,12] By prophecy Paul means the interpretation of the mysteries of Scripture; why would he profess that it is imperfect if there is nothing which is not perfectly clear? And if Paul here acknowledges imperfection, where are those who now boast of omniscience? (p. 234)

But you will say that Zwingli and Oecolampadius lost the Spirit after they started writing against you. (p. 235)

But if you attribute a total understanding of the Holy Scripture to the Holy Spirit, why do you make an exception only for the ignorance of grammar? In a matter of such importance will the Spirit allow grammar to stand in the way of man’s salvation? Since he did not hesitate to impart such riches of eternal wisdom, will he hesitate to impart grammar and common sense? (p. 239)

If you contend that there is no obscurity whatever in Holy Scripture, do not take up the matter with me but with all the orthodox Fathers, of whom there is none who does not preach the same thing as I do. (p. 242)

For which of them [the Church Fathers], in explaining the mysteries in these volumes, does not complain about the obscurity of Scripture? Not because they blame Scripture, as you falsely charge, but because they deplore the dullness of the human mind, not because they despair but because they implore grace from him who alone closes and opens to whomever he wishes, when he wishes, and as much as he wishes. (pp. 244-245)

But I am resolved in matters of faith not to give any weight to private feelings. (p. 247)

Both the Spirit and common sense and the clarity of Holy Scripture are claimed by both sides. . . . Grant that Scripture is perfectly clear: what will we unlearned people do when we see both sides contending with equal assertiveness that they have the Spirit who reveals mysteries and that they find Scripture absolutely clear? Grant that it is obscure in some places: what will we do when each side accuses the other of blindness? However these things may be, we are certainly left wavering in doubt, and in the meantime you neither acquit your faith by fulfilling your promise nor set us free by removing our doubt. (p. 254)

February 6, 2017


Desiderius Erasmus (1466/1469-1536); portrait (1523) by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/1498-1543) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

(Seven Parts)
Part V: Erasmus’ Hyperaspistes (1526): Excoriation of Luther’s Personal Insults

From: Peter Macardle and Clarence H. Miller, translators, Charles Trinkhaus, editor, Collected Works of Erasmus, Vol. 76: Controversies: De Libero Arbitrio / Hyperaspistes I, Univ. of Toronto Press, 1999.

* * * * *

As it is, since you chose to follow the emotions of certain persons rather than your own judgment, how much there is in your book that is completely off target, how much that is superfluous, how many commonplaces dwelled on at length, how many insults, how much that is manifestly inane, how many ruses, how many sly digs, how much that is shamelessly twisted and distorted, and how many tragical conclusions drawn from the distortions, and how much undeserved vociferation inspired by the conclusions! Because you were pleased to spend good time badly in such matters, I too am forced to use up some of my alotted lifespan in refuting them. My initial reaction is amazement. (p. 97)

. . . you should have considered the role you have undertaken to play, namely that of a person who professes to bring back into the light the gospel, which had been buried under mounds of earth for more than fifteen hundred years, one who abrogated all the authority of popes, bishops, councils, and universities, and promised the whole world a certain and true road to salvation hitherto unknown on earth. It was utterly incongruous for someone who had undertaken such an arduous task, like Atlas supporting the heavens on his shoulders (for now I will deal with you as if everything that you claim for yourself were true), for such a person to amuse himself as if he were dealing with a joking matter, to direct his bons mots, his mocks and moues, his witticisms at anyone he pleases, . . . (p. 99)

Certainly I thought that I had clearly avoided giving you any pretext for outrageous insults. I deliberately overlooked some of the more offensive passages in your Assertion because they could not be treated without injury to you. (p. 101)

. . . you may perhaps have written against others more vociferously but never against anyone with more enmity and bitterness . . . (p. 101)

In speech feelings sometimes outrun reason, but in writing we should not give in to emotion; we should look not to what seems emotionally right at the time but rather to what could be thought right for all time. (p. 102)

But since in this so very unfriendly response you want to appear to be a friend, and (heavens spare us!) a fair-minded one at that, I want you and your adherents to know that I am not so stupid as to be taken in by such tricks or so faint-hearted as to be disturbed by your insults. It would have been simpler if you had openly raged against me in your accustomed way. . . . to keep up this fiction . . . you found it necessary to join forces with a wordsmith [likely, Philip Melanchthon] to concoct the style and add the rhetorical facade, since, after all, you were writing against a rhetorician. I know the force of your style, which is like a torrent rushing down a mountain with a great roar and sweeping rocks and tree trunks with it. The language of this wordsmith flows more gently but carries more poison with it. I am not unaware who he is. (p. 103)

As for that spirit you claim for yourself, I wish you had given evidence of it in your writings as constantly and as emphatically as you assert you have it. However that may be, if your wordsmith in his bitterness had been content to insult my folly, my silliness, my utterly blatant ignorance, I would have overlooked it. But if I were to overlook the charge of wickedness levelled against me, the accusation of blaspheming God brought against me more than once, and finally that Lucianic word atheist, I would be worthy of being truly thought to be what you proclaim I am. But still I will refute these accusations in such a way as not to turn the insult back on you. (p. 112)

As for your insult about scum, I will set it down to your temperament and your want of eloquence. For I would prefer to be called scum rather than poison; scum can be washed off, but not so poison. (p. 114)

But I was not the only one who wanted restraint in your writing; even your sworn adherents wanted it. For they are learning from the event how many thousands of people are being alienated from the gospel (if indeed what you are teaching is the gospel) by the savageness of your pen or (if you prefer) by your less-than-evangelical witticisms. (p. 115)

How, then, can there be any validity in the notion that my Discussion has undone many of those who have not drunk in the Spirit from your writings, since it depends on such silly arguments that instead of undoing anyone it elicits laughter and pity from you and your followers? Is it so easy for people to fall away from the gospel? (p. 116)

Now I turn to those points you excerpted from my preface and with marvelous dexterity twisted them so as to slander me, opening up for us the storehouse of remarks about Sceptics. Here you immediately make a melodramatic uproar because I mentioned the Sceptics, as if I thought that nothing at all should be asserted. And you do not cease slandering me until you have made me into an atheist, although you began by saying that you did not want to make any judgment about my mind. How well these things dovetail! . . . you follow up with ‘in your heart you carry around a Lucianic atheist.’ And here you leave it up to me whether I want to appear to be a ridiculous orator or a wicked and insane writer. This is that restraint of yours with which you imitate my Discussion! . . . that whole speech in which you so superciliously despise a Sceptical attitude in matters pertaining to the Christian religion . . . is entirely beside the point, an extraordinary performance for such a remarkably wise orator as yourself. (pp. 117-118)

For is there anything you would hesitate to throw up to me, since you are not ashamed to call Erasmus time after time a Lucian and an Epicurus? (p. 123)

Therefore I ask you time and time again, Luther, what is the relevance of all your insults and slanders, all your taunts and outcries and curses, claiming that I want the freedom of the Sceptics in dealing with Holy Scripture; that ‘I do not care whether I fully understand or not’ what is prescribed by Scripture and the church; that ‘the gist of what I say is that it makes no difference what anyone anywhere believes so long as world peace is maintained’; . . . and to consider Christian doctrines as [‘]in no higher category than the opinions of philosophers’; and that the whole thrust of my writing shows that ‘in my heart I foster a Lucian or some other pig from the herd of Epicurus, someone who does not believe in God himself and hence secretly laughs at those who believe in God and profess that belief.’ And elsewhere you say that my breath has the foul, drunken odour of Epicurus and that I reek of nothing so much as the atheist Lucian. And then, not satisfied with such gross insults, you even add a rhetorical figure, saying, ‘You know what I refrain from saying here.’ . . . you claim that I wrote so wicked that even these wicked men [theologians] would tear me limb from limb if you did not hold them back out of the goodness of your heart. . . . when you have made me into a pig from the herd of Epicurus, as if I believed there is no God or, if there is, that he takes no care of mortals, when (I say) you have taunted me with such insults that none more atrocious could ever be imagined, then you add the hyperbole that I know ‘what you refrain from saying here.’ This would be the place to rage against you, if I wanted to imitate the impudence of your pen. There was no need at all for such shameless fabrications. I could have revealed from the writings of others what monster you hide in your heart and what spirit your writings breathe out at us. . . . I beseech you, Luther, by that spirit of yours of which you boast so often, do you write these things because you believe them or do you make them up to bring hatred down upon me? If you think I am as you describe me, you have conceived a very false opinion of me; if on the other hand you are making them up, as I believe you are, you can easily imagine what kind of opinion I conceive of you. But if your faithful ‘brothers’ in Christ have reported such things to you, they lied through their teeth. Do you think that I care nothing about the doctrines of the church simply because I refuse to support your condemned assertions? Do my many writings testify that I do not believe in God at all? . . . Or who ever heard from me a wicked statement about God? But I know that you think something quite different from what you write, nor is it hard for anyone to perceive what spirit has inspired you to write so odiously. And do not think that those spurious adjurations will make anyone believe you . . . If I wished to turn this technique back against you, even you can see, I think, how much material would be provided not so much by the art of rhetoric as by the facts themselves. (pp. 124-126)

Here I once more appeal to your conscience, Luther: aren’t you ashamed to smear your wretched paper with such trash? You twist my words to make it seem that I was setting down a formulation of all of Christianity intended for everyone. In fact, I was setting down what was enough to protect simple people from the contentious and almost inexplicable difficulties which are discussed concerning the subject of free will. (p. 137)

You never lack for something to say, but I think the judicious reader will not find it difficult to know what I think of you at this point. (p. 137)

I admonish the Christian to subject himself completely to the will of God . . . Are these the words of someone who denies there is any God? . . . How can someone commit himself completely to a God who he does not believe exists, or if he does, has no concern about human affairs? (p. 137)

Time after time, Luther, see how you are swept away by your impetuous temperament, yielding to it in a way incompatible with the image you chose to project. (p. 137)

. . . it is amazing how melodramatic language flows out of you, replete with salty wit and smelling of the barnyard . . . (p. 139)

But the fact that you are so disparaging, derogatory, and utterly contemptuous towards my Discussion argues that it is not as contemptible as you make out. If it did not bear down on you, your pen would not have produced such outrageous insults to its author. (p. 140)

But when you begin to play-act for . . . your claque, you are so impudent in your insults and your pantomimed mockery, so tricky and so unrestrained in your abuse when you are hemmed in by arguments, that no one, even if he bent over backwards to be fair to you, could find any excuses for your spirit. (p. 142)

I, on the other hand, would not dare to promise to make you ashamed of anything, such is your pertinacity, but I will make everyone understand how crafty you are in twisting, distorting, misrepresenting, exaggerating whatever you wish, although the world has long since recognized this. There are those who have repeatedly mentioned your inconstancy in published books, and you cleverly pretend not to notice. (p. 145)

And afterwards you offer us apologies for that wonderful lack of eloquence of yours, although when it comes to abuse and slander you have such a great abundance of bitter language that you can exhaust any amount of leisure or patience, and you are so crafty, moreover, that nothing can be said so carefully that you cannot turn it into dreadful melodrama. (p. 146)

. . . you . . . hurl many other charges against me which are not based on fact but on whatever advances your case, as I have partly shown and will later show more clearly. (p. 157)

I believe you throw in this section deliberately to refresh your readers and give them some pleasure, since the rest is so tasteless that it had long since turned their stomach. (p. 161)

. . . in the next section you hurl the lightning-bolt of your foul abuse at me, saying I teach that God is ignorant, that the faith should be scorned so that we will let go of the promises of God, and many other things ‘that even Epicurus would hardly prescribe.’ Not content with that, I trample Christians under my feet and the whole content of Christianity too — indeed, what not? — because I advise those of moderate intelligence not to engage in contentious disputations on such subjects but to hold to what the church has handed down. And from this you draw the conclusion, logician that you are, that ‘my book is so ungodly, blasphemous, and sacrilegious that anything like it is nowhere to be found.’ If you are ashamed of such accusations I do not know; certainly you would be if you had any sense of shame. . . . What you call a bad cause, I, together with the church, call the very best cause . . . And not the favour or the fear of any prince, not even your savagery, could then or could ever bring enough pressure to make me knowingly impugn what is true or defend what I know to be false in matters which concern godliness. Thus when you hammer away again and again at the notion that I yielded to favour or fear against my conscience, you make it clear again and again that you are either miserably deceived or are making up the most malicious lies. (pp. 162-163)

Where did you get the idea that I wrote the Discussion specifically against you? That is not what the title indicates, and the work itself clearly shows otherwise, but you imagine this, or rather you fabricate it, so as to make it seem more just for you to rage against me. (p. 164)

If you should ever pour forth such insults against some outrageous misdeed, one already demonstrated as factual, it mnight be called vehemence. As it is, since you never cease to rattle on in this fashion and never stop even when there is no justification for such insults and you have not proven what you assume, there is no one, Luther, who does not perceive that this uncontrolled abusiveness bespeaks a mental disorder in you which I would rather contemn than imitate. (p. 170)

Look now and see whether the apostles introduced the teachings of the gospel into the world with such methods as these, which you use to restore it, as you say. Did they ever slander the innocent? Did they ever rant and rave against anyone with such scurrilous language? Did they turn up their noses at anyone? Did they take up the cause of the gospel with trickery, slander, and threats? Did they ever use such impudent language? Here I could mention many other things, which I hold back; perhaps your insight can divine what I mean. (p. 171)

. . . why do you yourself not rant and rave against the emperor with savagery like that with which you assail the pope and bishops? For the emperor is a greater obstacle to your gospel than the pope. (p. 175)

There is no one, then, who does not see how much tragic eloquence you spew forth, making yourself all the more ridiculous the more you rant and rave, violently and uncontrollably, beyond the limits of the case. (p. 182)

Nor are you so ignorant of the Latin language that you did not understand what I meant, but rather, as Midas turned whatever he touched into gold, so you were determined to turn whatever you could get your hands on into slander. I was already hoping that your mind was now at least satiated with insults. But there is no limit to it . . . (p. 195)

. . . you have the impudence first of all to identify Baal with the God of our church, who is adored by so many thousands of saints that supported and support free will, and then to claim the true God for your flock. (p. 202)

Could you ever bear to say ‘as you very pointedly argue,’ since for you I always speak ignorantly and stupidly. [?] . . . since up to now you have so shamelessly ranted and raved against Erasmus as a Sceptic and worse than a Sceptic, namely a thoroughgoing Lucian and Epicurus? Again, could you say ‘there is something in what you say but not the whole truth,’ since you always bawl out that I have nothing to say and utter nothing but verbal bubbles and bombast? But however this may be, it doesn’t much matter. (p. 214)

And here you indulge in marvellous rhetorical flourishes, or rather someone else under your name [partial ghost writer Melanchthon?], for you are not able to set forth ten words without insults. (p. 223)

But you seem to me to fight like that dog sent by the king of Albania as a gift to Alexander: when the dog fought with an elephant, he skilfully ran around in circles barking on one side and then the other, until he wore the beast out, making it dizzy from turning around so often, and in this way brought it down. (p. 230)

And once before I already gave you the reason for my procedure: to find out whether you could dispute without insults . . . (p. 242)

You see to it that this disputation of yours is translated into German, so that you can expose Erasmus to ridicule among farmers, sailers, and cobblers, to whom he cannot speak, and do you think learned men do not see what you are doing? Insurrection is what you have in mind; you see that that is what has so often resulted up to now from your German pamphlets. This is what the apostles did, indeed! I debated with you, subject to the judgment of the community of learned men; you transfer your case to the ignorant mob and you make false charges against me among workmen, tanners, and farmers, who favour you and do not know me. They understand you when you make false charges; they do not understand me when I reply. What a pretty victory you are out to get! (pp. 247-248)

You do nothing but stoop to slander, to insults, to threats, and yet you want to appear guileless and undefiled, not led by human emotions but by the Spirit of God. (p. 278)

Note, I beg you, how much time, paper, and effort I have lost in refuting your quibbles, insults, and slanders. You could have defended your teaching boldly, without injuring anyone and gaining praise for yourself. And that much was deserved by my modest Discussion; the duller and sleepier she was — for that is how you interpret my courtesy — the less she deserved the uncontrollable rage of your pen. As it is, while you twist and turn everything into slander and insults, you lose a good part of your leisure, and so do I and the reader. And you are so far from gaining any credit for yourself by revealing your disordered mind here that even what you rightly teach or warn or inculcate will not be credited by many — and I confess that there are very many such things in your writings. For what led you to make false charges about something that never even crossed my mind? (p. 291)

. . . you still have leisure to write such large books, such elaborately abusive books, against a person whose mind is completely unknown to you, at least it is so if you judge it to be only like what you make it out to be. If you had ranted and raved with free and open insults, we could praise your frankness and put it down to your temperament; but as it is you carry on with crafty malice. If you had been content with two or three insults, they might have seemed to have just slipped out; as it is your whole book swarms everywhere with abuse. You begin with it, you proceed with it, you end with it. If you had glutted yourself with only one kind of insult, calling me a blockhead, an ass, or a mushroom, one after the other, I would have given no answer except that line from the comedy: ‘I am a human being and I consider nothing human foreign to me.’ But such things could not satiate your hatred; you had to go on to make me into a Lucian or an Epicurus, disbelieving Holy Scripture to the extent that I think there is not even a God, an enemy of Christianity, finally a blasphemer against God and the Christian religion. Such are the charms scattered throughout your book, which is set over against my Discussion, which contains no insults. If some lightweight and lying tattler, of which there is no lack in your confraternity, brought this perverse opinion to you, you ought to consider how such levity fits the character you have taken upon yourself to play. If you conceived it in your own mind, who would believe that any good man could have such horrible suspicions about someone he doesn’t know. But if you made them up out of a desire to injure me, it cannot be obscure to anyone what should be thought of you. But because my writings clearly refute your sanders, since they everywhere preach the majesty of Holy Scripture and the glory of Christ, you deny that I was sincere when I wrote them. A ready and easy solution: if you cannot slander something, it was written as a joke; if anything is open to slander, it was written seriously. And such distinctions as these enable you to incriminate; yet you hiss at sophistical distinctions which were invented in order to teach. I ask you, what is such a mind, such a nature, if indeed it is a nature? Or what kind of spirit, if it is a spirit? And finally, what is such a non-evangelical way of teaching the gospel? Has the rebirth of the gospel taken away all secular laws, so that now it is permissible to say and write whatever you like against anyone you please? Is this the complete liberty you are restoring to us? If someone claimed I had no intelligence, judgment, or learning, I could bear it with moderation. If someone accused me of ignorance or thoughtlessness in handling Scripture, I would recognize a human failing. But if someone accuses me of disregarding God and scorning Scripture, he either does this because he is persuaded by the speech of some talebearer and so is most frivolous or, if he makes it up himself, he is an unbearable backbiter. At this point look for yourself to what your conscience tells you. (pp. 295-296)


February 6, 2017


Desiderius Erasmus (1466/1469-1536); portrait (1523) by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/1498-1543) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

(Seven Parts)
Part IV: Erasmus’ Hyperaspistes (1526): Luther’s Anti-Traditional Elements

From: Peter Macardle and Clarence H. Miller, translators, Charles Trinkhaus, editor, Collected Works of Erasmus, Vol. 76: Controversies: De Libero Arbitrio / Hyperaspistes I, Univ. of Toronto Press, 1999.

* * * * *

I have always hated factions. Up to now I wanted to stand alone, as long as I am not separated from the Catholic church. There was no reason for you to be afraid since you, together with your guard of sworn adherents, had to deal with a single person, and unarmed at that. But, you say, ‘you are armed with eloquence.’ If I have any, I certainly didn’t use it against you, and I dispensed not only with that weaponry, but also with the authority of the princes of the church, which by itself could be thought to be weapon enough for me. What was the point of absolving yourself of any fear of a single, unarmed person, since you have so courageously scorned both popes and emperors and battalions of theologians? But on these points you simply wanted to play the rhetorician. (p. 116)

There has to be some end to disputing. It is you who are forcing us to take up the matter all over again by calling into doubt, indeed by dislodging and demolishing, what has been fully approved, fixed, and immovable for so many centuries. (p. 121)

Which is more wicked: not to dispute about Christian dogmas beyond what is sufficient or to undermine them, throw them out, trample upon them, and decorate them with your kind of verbal decorations? (p. 126)

Is it right for just anyone to abrogate the judgments of the ancient Fathers which have been fully confirmed by the public decision of the church? Finally, why are you so outraged by the prophets who arise after you? (p. 129)

You can be sure of this, Luther, I do not entirely agree with any dogma of yours (I mean those that have been condemned) except that what you write about the corrupt morals of the church is truer than I would wish. (p. 139)

And then, what need is there for simple Christians to dispute about contingencies and the will as merely passive, since the magisterium of the church regards as settled that the will does do something but that what it does is ineffectual unless grace constantly lends its aid? Christian people have held this doctrine for fifteen hundred years, nor is it right to dispute about it, except in a restrained way and so as to better establish what the church has handed down. (p. 139)

It is not only excessively curious but also wicked to call into question, as you do, what the church has accepted with such an overwhelming consensus. (p. 140)

. . . if what the church has decided is true and indubitable, it is not safe for the ignorant multitude to hear the reasons, protestations, and oaths for the other side. But this is what I was urging, that simple people be content to accept the Catholic opinion, believing and holding what they have received, that is, the very thing you have undertaken to impugn. (p. 161)

I think that those who dispute about frivolous questions are more acceptable than those who by their disputations call back into debate matters about which the church has long since decreed that there should be no disagreement, having condemned what is false and approved what is true. (p. 163)

If I handle Holy Scripture with less learning, at least I do so cautiously and with reverence, following in the footsteps of the orthodox and fearing to depart from the decisions of the church. (p. 176)

If you are influenced by the judgment of the church, what you assert is human fabrication, what you fight against is the word of God. If you are not, even so you should deploy very clear arguments to prove what you assert before you command us to go over to your position, which is at odds with so many luminaries of the church and even with the public judgment of the church. (p. 181)

. . . arguments which would make us believe with certainty that you and your few adherents teach the truth, while so many Doctors of the church, so many universities, councils, and popes etc. were blind, even though both sides have Scripture in common. (p. 197)

. . . we should be shown some reason why we can safely believe in your teaching, rejecting the doctrine handed down by so many learned and famous men and accepted by the whole Christian world with such an overwhelming consensus. You try many ways to avoid this knot. (p. 200)

We are dealing with this: would a stable mind depart from the opinion handed down by so many famous men famous for holiness and miracles, depart from the decision of the church, and commit our souls to the faith of someone like you who has sprung up just now with a few followers, although the leading men of your flock do not agree either with you or among themselves — indeed though you do not even agree with yourself, since in this same Assertion you say one thing in the beginning and something else later on, recanting what you said before. (p. 203)

In A Discussion I do not employ the authority of either popes or councils or orthodox teachers to support free will, and even if I had done so, that would have been somewhat more tolerable than your citing of Melanchthon’s pamphlet as if it had the same authority as canonical Scripture. (p. 295)

In A Discussion I do not defend my own teaching but that of the church, but I do so without the assistance of the church, and I defend it from Holy Scripture, not as a fabrication of men but as the determination of Holy Scripture. (p. 205)

And here once more you have the impudence to scoff at orthodox Greek writers whom you deprive of all authority by a marvellous assumption, that the saints have sometimes erred because they are human . . . (p. 207)

Therefore do not insist that on the issue of free will you have the advantage of having Augustine so often on your side — as you boast, though I will soon show that this is quite false — lest we turn your comparison back against you. Or if you deprive them [the Church Fathers] of all authority, stop making use of their testimony. If they said many things devoutly, many things excellently, although they sometimes made mistakes, allow us to make use of what they said well, as you claim the right to do also. . . . It seems that up to now you have not ranted and raved enough against the most approved Doctors of the church unless you accuse St Jerome of impiety, sacrilege, and blasphemy because he wrote, ‘Virginity fills up heaven; marriage, the earth.’ (pp. 208-209)

You rant and rave thus against Jerome, but you do not allow anyone to disagree with you, however courteously. . . . I said it is not credible that God for so many centuries should have overlooked such a harmful error in his church without revealing to some of his saints the point which you contend is the keystone of the teachings in the gospel . . . (pp. 209-210)

But the whole drift of your reasoning is to make us understand that it is unknown who the saints are and what the church is . . . in such a way that the church of the saints seems to be where it is not, and, on the other hand, is where it does not seem to be . . . But when you declaim all this so copiously, you do nothing but confound and entirely subvert all heretical conventicles . . . How, then, are you sure that Wyclif was a holy man and the Arians were heretics? Is Wyclif holy precisely because he was condemned by the church which you call papistical? By the same token you will say that Arius was holy because he was condemned by the same church. At this point if you appeal to Scripture, did the Arians have any lack of Scripture? No, they did not, you will say, but they interpreted it wrongly. But how can we be sure of that except that the church rejected their interpretation and approved that of the other side? The same could be said of Pelagius . . . But let us grant it is possible that a general council is so corrupt that either there is no one moved by the Spirit of God, or if there is, he is not listened to, and that a conciliar decree is issued from the opinion of evil men, still it is more probable that the Spirit of God is there than in private conventicles, where the spirit of Satan is quite likely to be detected . . . I think it is safer to follow public authority rather than the opinion of someone or other who scorns everyone and boasts of his own conscience and spirit. If it is enough to say, ‘I have the Spirit,’ then we will have to believe many people urging various opinions upon us, and if the opinions disagree with one another they cannot be true . . . other things being equal, the greater probability lies on the side of what is approved by such men and confirmed by the public authority of the church rather than with what someone or other brought up on his own. (pp. 210-211)

As it is, since you confess that you are not certain where the saints are, where the true church is which does not err, either we will waver in uncertainty or we will follow what is nearer to the truth. (p. 211)

But if we posit an equal balance in the things by which you wish to be judged and the opinion of men is wavering in the balance, I ask you whether the authority of the ancient Fathers and the church should have any weight. . . . it should have enough weight, when the scale is evenly balanced, to incline us towards those who have been commended for so many centuries by the public favour of the whole world than towards those who are commended for no other reason than that they are baptized. And so if you insist that their authority has no value in confirming an opinion, then neither does yours or anyone else’s. (p. 213)

Why should it be so monstrous if, when some ambiguity or other arises in Scripture, we ignorant souls should prefer to consult the see of Rome rather than that of Wittenberg, which is full of disagreements at that? And who would believe the church of Rome if it should make pronouncements without Scripture? Nor does it interpret Scripture without the help of a council made up of learned men. You interpret at your own whim, with the help of your spirit, which is unknown to us . . . (p. 224)

. . . you demand that we reject their [the Church Fathers’] authority, that we hold to your teachings as if they were articles of the faith. At least grant us, for their teachings as well as yours, the same right to suspend judgment about either. (p. 225)

And I do not bring up how numerous and gifted they [the Church Fathers] were except to force you to bring forth a manifest argument by which we may know that we can safely believe in you and piously diverge from them. (p. 226)

The church has judged the Arians, and you approve of her judgment. But the same church condemned your teachings. (p. 232)

There [Luther’s Commentary on the Psalms] you call the ancient, orthodox writers consummately orthodox, holy, and learned; here you laugh at me for attributing holiness to them, while you charge them with blindness, ignorance, even blasphemy and sacrilege. And you can find no other excuse that would enable them to be saved except that they meant something different from what they wrote or repented of their error before they died. (p. 238)

. . . I called into question which interpretation we should follow, that of the ancient Fathers, which has been approved for so many centuries, or yours, which has sprung up so recently. (p. 244)

I do not require anyone to reject the opinion of all of them [the Church Fathers] on a matter of such great importance and to believe me alone — which is what you do, and not on this dogma alone, entreating and even demanding assent as rightfully due to you, threatening to trample in the mire of the streets whoever resists you as you preach the word of God. Therefore fairness requires that you give us firm arguments showing us why your judgment alone should carry more weight with us than that of so many great men . . . (p. 245)

What a convenient crack you have found here, one through which you can slip away whenever you are confronted with the authority of the ancient Fathers: they didn’t mean this, but rather they brought such things forth with a wandering pen and a meandering mind. And all the time you do not see that this device of yours can be turned back against you, not only by us but also by your followers . . . if it should happen that we seemed equal in testimonies out of Scripture and judgment hung in the balance, wavering in either direction, I asked whether it seemed right in this state of affairs that the authority of the ancients, together with the decision of the church, should certainly have a tiny bit of influence to make us more inclined towards their judgment rather than yours. . . . Place, then, free choice in the middle, held in good faith by the Catholic church for more than thirteen hundred years. Place yourself on one side assailing it with the assistance of Scripture and me on the other side defending it with the same assistance. Add spectators who, like me, think all our evidence is equal, although you demand to be at one and the same time both contestant and umpire and superintendent of the games. Who will award the prize either to you or to me, and by whose choice shall free choice be preserved or else destroyed? (pp. 249-250)

Now look at the laws which you prescribe, though you are not yet the victor: lay down whatever arms are supplied by the ancient orthodox teachers, the schools of the theologians, the authority of councils and popes, the consensus of the whole Christian people over so many centuries; we accept nothing but Scripture, but in such a way that we alone have authoritative certainty in interpreting it; our interpretation is what was meant by the Holy Spirit; that brought forward by others, however great, however many, arises from the spirit of Satan and from madness; what the orthodox taught, what the authority of the church handed down, what the people of Christ embraced, what the schools defend is the deadly venom of Satan; what I teach is the spirit of life; believe that in Scripture there is no obscurity at all, not even so much as to need a judge; or, though all are blind, I am not blind; for I am conscious that I have the Spirit of Christ, which enables me to judge everyone but no one to judge me; I refuse to be judged, I require compliance; let no one be the least bit moved by the multitude, the magnitude, the breadth and depth, the miracles, the holiness of the church’s saints; they all were lost if they meant what they wrote, unless perhaps they came to their senses before the last day of their lives; whoever does not believe my proofs either lacks common sense or commits blasphemy against the Holy Spirit and subverts Christianity. If we accept such laws as these, the victory is indeed yours. Then again, you demand that we not believe the ancient orthodox Fathers because they sometimes disagreed amongst themselves, whereas the few of you fight very much with each other about the prophets, images, church rules, baptism, the Eucharist; and you want us nevertheless to believe your teachings, especially because every day we expect new ones. And we are called blasphemous because we still cling to the old church and do not dare to join your camp . . . I am not making any of this up; I am saying what is certain and well known. (p. 261)


Erasmus’ Own Orthodoxy and Obedience to the Church

From the Catholic church I have never departed. I have never had the least inclination to enlist in your church — so little, in fact, that, though I have been very unlucky in many other ways, in one respect I consider myself lucky indeed, namely that I have steadfastly kept my distance from your league. I know that in the church which you call papistical there are many with whom I am not pleased, but I see such persons also in your church. But it is easier to put up with evils to which you are accustomed. Therefore I will put up with this church until I see a better one, and it will have to put up with me until I become better. And surely a person does not sail infelicitously if he holds to a middle course between two evils. (p. 117)

But let me show you how you have slandered me twice over: first I myself explicitly exclude from Scepticism whatever is set forth in Sacred Scripture or whatever has been handed down to us by the authority of the church. (p. 118)

I think it is sufficiently clear from my writings how much I attribute to Sacred Scripture and how unwaveringly I am in the articles of faith. On these points I am so far from desiring or having a Sceptical outlook that I would not hesitate to face death to uphold them. . . . now that the church has defined them [various “controverted teachings”] also, I have no use for human arguments but rather follow the decision of the church and cease to be a Sceptic. (pp. 118-119)

Whatever has been handed down as part of our faith is not to be sifted and searched so as to call it into question; rather it is to be professed. . . . Nor do I condemn in an unqualified way those who engage in moderate disputation, seeking to investigate some point which is not expressed in Sacred Scripture or defined by the church, but rather those who indulge in fierce and destructive strife about such matters. . . . I do not condemn moderate investigation but rather obstinate strife to the detriment of religion and harmony. (p. 120)

But I do not place more hope or find more consolation anywhere than in Holy Scripture, from which I believe I have derived so much light that I may hope for eternal salvation by the mercy of God without any of your contentious dogmas. And so I have no less reverence for Scripture than those who honour it most devoutly . . . the decrees of the Catholic church, especially those issued by general councils and fully approved by a consensus of Christian people, carry such weight with me that, even if my tiny intellect cannot fully understand the human reasons underlying what is prescribed, I will embrace it as if it were an oracle issued by God, nor will I violate any regulation of the church unless it is absolutely necessary to have a dispensation from the law. And I would be enormously displeased with myself and would suffer mental torment if the leaders of the church had directed at me the judgment they have pronounced against you . . . Follow your bent and make whatever interpretation you wish, call me a dyed-in-the-wool papist. You will not be able to impugn my attitude in any way, except that together with all good men I have desired the correction of the church, in so far as that can be done without serious and violent disturbances. (p. 127)

In Sacred Scripture, whenever the sense is quite clear, I want nothing to do with Scepticism, no more than I do concerning the decrees of the Catholic church. (p. 127)

For what does it mean to submit human understanding to the judgment of the church if not to believe what the church prescribes? I do not fully understand how the Father differs from the Son, how the Holy Spirit proceeds from both, though he is the son of neither one; and I am still more certain about this than about what I touch with my fingers. (p. 128)

I have always professed to be quite apart from your league; I am at peace with the Catholic church, to whose judgment I have submitted my writings, to detect any human error in them, for I know that they are very far from any malice or impiety. . . . It is not my place to wield the rod of judgment over the lives of popes and bishops. (p. 141)

Am I in danger of offending the Spirit of God if I am afraid to dissent from the church of Christ? Indeed the very reason I do not dare to entrust myself to you is that I am afraid to offend the Spirit of God. (p. 146)

I thought less badly of the man [Jan Hus] before I sampled the book he wrote against the Roman pontiff. What does such laborious abuse have in common with the Spirit of Christ? And in our discussion it does not matter what sort of pope condemned Hus; he is unknown to me, and popes have their own judge before whom they stand or fall. They are my judges; I am not theirs. (p. 230)

. . . Including Acceptance of Sola Gratia

. . . in my Discussion I so distinctly and so clearly explain that there is no contradiction in saying that the sum and substance of a good deed should be attributed to God and asserting also that the human will does something, however tiny its share may be. (p. 154)

For why should anyone have faith in himself if he knows that he can neither begin nor complete anything without the help of God’s grace, to whom I profess that the sum and substance of all things rightly done ought to be attributed? Nor is there any difference between you and me except that I make our will cooperate with the grace of God and you make it completely passive. (p. 185)

How will a person rise up against God if he knows that he has in himself no hope of salvation without the singular grace of God, if he is persuaded that all human powers are of no avail for salvation without the aid of grace, especially since he is not unaware that everything he can do by his natural powers is the free gift of God? If a person wishes to cross the ocean, is he confident that he can achieve this without a ship and wind? And yet he is not idle while he is sailing. For professing free will does not tend to make a person attribute less to the mwercy of God but rather keeps him from not responding to operating grace and gives him reason to blame himself if he perishes. I exalt God’s mercy so much, I diminish human power so much, that in the matter of salvation no one can claim anything for himself, since the very fact of his existence and whatever he can do by his natural endowments is the gift of God. You exalt grace and demean mankind so much that you open another pit which we had closed over by attributing just a little bit to free will, namely that it accommodates itself to grace or turns away from grace. (p. 186)

When you say that a person taken captive by sin cannot by his own power turn his will to good unless he is blown upon by the breath of grace, we also profess this, especially if you mean turning effectively. (p. 188)

. . . you remove grace from free will, but when I say free will does something good, I join it with grace, and while it obeys grace it is acted upon and it acts felicitously. (p. 190)

Now see how you bear down upon me: it effects nothing without grace; therefore it does nothing at all with grace. Is this the trap you have set to catch me? (p. 190)

February 3, 2017


Desiderius Erasmus (1466/1469-1536); portrait (1523) by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/1498-1543) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

(Seven Parts)
Part III: Erasmus’ Hyperaspistes (1526): Luther’s Extreme Dogmatism

From: Peter Macardle and Clarence H. Miller, translators, Charles Trinkhaus, editor, Collected Works of Erasmus, Vol. 76: Controversies: De Libero Arbitrio / Hyperaspistes I, Univ. of Toronto Press, 1999.

* * * * *

Do you go so far as to allow no one even to open his mouth in opposition to your opinions? But still you are always challenging everyone to engage you in hand-to-hand combat. (p. 102)

Those who were once your sworn adherents dare to draw their swords against you and do not refrain from insults, and yet you cannot tolerate Erasmus even when he argues in a very restrained manner? (p. 102)

As for your claiming knowledge together with Paul [Luther’s Works vol. 33, 294], would that you could truly do so and at the same time would exhibit that evangelical spirit with which the writings of Paul are redolent, whereas yours are clamorous with a quite different spirit. But in the end is it any affront to me to have you disparage my knowledge, since you have long since belittled the knowledge of every council and all bishops and popes and the Doctors of the church, whether ancient or modern, and finally of all the universities? Was anyone ever wise if he departed a hair’s breadth, as they say, from your teachings? However wise anyone may have been before, once he begins to contradict you, he undergoes a metamorphosis: instead of being Lynceus he becomes blind as a bat, he is changed from a man to a moron. (p. 108)

But just as I am not even the least bit affected by the praises of your adherents, so too your judgment about me is almost a source of delight. If I had supported your teachings everywhere in my written works, my heavens, how great a theologian would I have been! (p. 111)

Let Melanchthon go over to the other side and take up arms against you: immediately you will find him a stinking rogue and he will undergo a metamorphosis no more lenient than that suffered by Karlstadt, who was swiftly changed from the ointment-box of the Holy Spirit to an instrument of the devil the minute he departed a hair’s breadth from your precepts. (p. 113)

I saw that it would do no good at all for you to direct your violence not only against popes and bishops . . . but also against anyone who so much as mutters anything against you. (p. 115)

. . . you were prepared to rage against anyone who did not entirely disapprove of the drama you had undertaken but objected to your staging of it . . . (p. 115)

. . . they disagree with your dogmas, and whatever diverges from them is clearly (in your opinion) wicked. (p. 138)

If you had persuaded us that you are the man sent to this world by God to renew the church by the sword of the gospel, who was guided by the Spirit of God, who stood alone in finding nothing obscure in Sacred Scripture, of our own accord we would have crawled thither, just to kiss your feet. But however often you claim you are such a person, you have not yet persuaded me. Very many things prevented me from believing it, but among the primary reasons were the bitterness of your pen, your unbridled urge to hurl insults, the utterly scurrilous bons mots, the saucy moues and mocks which you employ against all who dare to open their mouths against your dogmas. (p. 141)

Nor is anyone at odds with the word of God, as you thunder out so often, but with your interpretations. (p. 171)

. . . you assume that whatever you teach is the word of God, so that all that remains is for you to become Christ, preaching the gospel anew. But just as it is not clear to us by what spirit you are led, so too we are not yet persuaded that whatever you teach is the word of God . . . I firmly profess that I am of the number of those who would rather die ten times over than even once hinder the course of the word of God. (p. 172)

I revere the word of God with my whole heart, but I do not believe that whatever you assert is the word of God. . . . You rush in violently and, turning everything upside down, you contend that Scripture means what you want it to mean and what fits your teachings. In brief, you conduct yourself as if you wanted victory for yourself, not the gospel, and as if you demanded to be the lord, not the steward, of Holy Scripture. (p. 176)

Does anyone who does not agree with your assertions and interpretations weigh Holy Scripture according to the understanding of most wicked men? (p. 183)

. . . since you are taking up a serious point, I am not unwilling both to listen and to respond. But you must provide us with very compelling and weighty reasons if you want to persuade us that the position held already for centuries by the people of Christ together with their teachers and still held by the church to this day is a pernicious teaching, wicked, heretical, and blasphemous, but that your teaching is a principal article of the Christian faith, without which no one can be saved. . . . the first reason you use to silence us, saying it is enough that God wishes these things to be proclaimed and it is not man’s place to inquire why he wishes it, has no validity against us because it assumes as obvious what is actually controversial, namely that your teaching is the word of God. Hence do not ply us with this response in the future unless you have first shown your assumption to be completely certain, whereas in fact it is not only doubtful but also condemned by the universities and the leading men of the church. (pp. 184-185)

But in fact we are not dealing with the word of God but rather with your interpretations and assertions. (p. 195)

Your insults know no bounds, and you do not approve of anything at all in a person who opposes your opinion. (p. 213)

This is the main point of this disputation, that you make us certain that you alone teach what is most true and most certain on issues about which up till now the orthodox Fathers have been deluded, the leaders of the church have been deluded. If you will not allow us to consider their judgment certain in any respect, certainly you will allow us simple and unlearned folk to give as much weight to the judgment of such men as to yours or Wyclif’s. But if you claim the right to rescind the decisions of the church in so far as you find it convenient to do so, you will permit the church also to give tit for tat by rescinding and condemning yours. And if you think it is right for the whoe assembly of the church, together with so many orthodox Fathers, to yield to you, a newly arisen prophet, you also ought to yield to the others who arise after you. (p. 222)

. . . why do you demand that we have faith in your writings, since you confess that you are at a loss in some places and since you sometimes bring forth varying interpretations — which you would hardly do if there were no obscurity or ambiguity. (p. 225)

Teach us the external clarity of Scripture, seeing that you take it away from the church herself and the luminaries of the church and claim it for yourself, throwing the world into the most tumultuous uproar. (p. 226)

And who would deny that those orthodox Fathers and the whole Christian people had common sense? It is more likely that you and your adherents lack common sense: you, because you rant and rave with such uncontrollable abuse against those who contradict your teachings even for the sake of discussion; your adherents, because with unrestrained factionalism in support of you they approve of whatever you have taught: ipse dixit. If you appeal to the Spirit, once more I demand a manifest sign. (p. 230)

If you respond that it is not surprising that such spiritual men sometimes perceived according to the flesh, the identical words of your response can be turned back against you. If you respond that the world is the kingdom of Satan, and therefore it is not surprising that so many great men throughout the long course of centuries were so blinded that they did not see the light of Scripture, all of this, with much more probability, will be turned back against you. For you too are carrying the flesh around with you, and you dwell in the world you share with them, in which Satan reigns. (p. 231)

But to press you to deal with the matter at hand, show us by what arguments we can be sure that you have the Spirit as your master and are not deceived in explaining Scripture, even though all the Doctors of the church were deluded about it. (p. 239)

. . . stop demanding that we consider your interpretation to be an oracle from on high. (p. 242)

. . . we do not dare to withdraw from our church and to commit our salvation to your faith. What sign do you show us that we should believe you rather than them? (p. 253)

And you want us to go right ahead and believe that for so many centuries the gospel has been shrouded by Satan, that it is now unveiled by you, and that there is no pure interpretation of Scripture anywhere but in Wittenberg. (p. 254)

Ity may be that you are such a man as you proclaim yourself to be, but we would be more ready to believe it if there were less arrogance in your writings, less bitterness, less trickery and craftiness. (p. 254)

This is what we demand: that you make us certain concerning your teaching — which you had taken upon yourself to do. If you can’t do it, allow us little sheep and simple souls to follow the voice of the church. . . . I have grave doubts about the spirit which is drunk from your writings. (p. 255)

. . . you claim for yourself in explicating Holy Scripture a privilege you withhold from others and . . . you ordinarily hiss at the distinctions of others but want your own to be considered oracular. For us you shut up every way out; and for yourself you want all your bolt-holes to be open. (p. 260)

And I hardly know whether you think there are any Christian teachings besides yours. (p. 276)


February 2, 2017


Desiderius Erasmus (1466/1469-1536); portrait (1523) by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/1498-1543) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

(Seven Parts)
Part II: Luther’s Insults of Erasmus in Bondage of the Will & Table-Talk

The Bondage of the Will

[from the 1823 Edward Thomas Vaughan translation; available online]

First, we observe Luther’s insincere (?) rhetorical flattery:

To the Venerable Mister Erasmus. (subtitle)

I am quite ready to yield a palm to you myself, such as I never yet did to any man; admitting, that you not only very far excel me in eloquence and genius . . ., but that you have checked both my spirit and my inclination to answer you, and have made me languid before the battle . . . by your art in pleading this cause with such a wonderful command of temper, from first to last, that you have made it impossible for me to be angry with you . . . (Introduction)

. . . the authority of Erasmus is not to be despised . . . (Introduction)

And who knows but God may deign to visit even you, my excellent Erasmus, by so wretched and frail a little vessel of His, as myself? (Introduction)

Then he starts in with his ridiculous insults:

Once more; let me beg of you, my Erasmus, to bear with my rudeness of speech, even as I bear with your ignorance on these subjects. (Introduction)

However, let the words pass, as I have said; and, in the meantime, I will excuse your spirit, on the condition that you manifest it no further. O fear the Spirit of God, who searches the reins and the hearts, arid is not beguiled by fine words. I have said thus much to deter you from hereafter loading our cause with charges of positiveness and inflexibility; for, upon this plan, you only shew that you are nourishing in your heart a Lucian, or some other hog of the Epicurean sty, who, having no belief at all of a God himself, laughs in his sleeve at all those who believe and confess one. Allow us to be asserters, to be studious of assertions, and to be delighted with them; but thou, meanwhile, bestow thy favour upon thy Sceptics and Academics, till Christ shall have called even thee also. The Holy Ghost is no Sceptic . . . (Pt. I)

But that some dogmas of Scripture are shut up in the dark, and all are not exposed to view, has been rumoured, it is true, by profane Sophists (with whose mouth you also speak here, Erasmus), . . . (Pt. I)

Assuredly, any Jew or Heathen, who had no knowledge at all of Christ, would find it easy enough to draw out such a pattern of faith as yours. You do not mention Christ in a single jot of it; as though you thought that Christian piety might subsist without Christ, if but God, whose nature is most merciful, be worshipped with all our might. What shall I say here, Erasmus? Your whole air is Lucian, and your breath a vast surfeit of Epicurus? (Pt. I)

Just what has happened to you in this case, Erasmus! May the Lord pardon and have mercy on you! . . . But you are foolish and rash in mixing, confounding, and assimilating the purity of sacred truth with the profane and foolish questions of ungodly men. They have defiled the gold and changed its beautiful colour, as Jeremiah says, (Lam. v. 1.) but gold is not forthwith to be compared to dung and thrown away together with it; as you have done. (Pt. I)

Here again, you confound and mix things, as your custom is, that you may degrade what is sacred to the level of the profane, without allowing the least difference between them . . . (Pt. I)

. . . your words sound as though, like Epicurus, you accounted the word of God and a future state to be mere fables . . . (Pt. I)

You see again, how rashly you make war upon the word of God, as though you preferred your own thoughts and counsels very far before it. (Pt. I)

. . . we readily perceive, that you have not given us this counsel from your heart; and that you do not write any thing seriously, but trust to the vain and puerile ornaments of your language as that which may enable you to lead the world whither soever you please. (Pt. II)

Where is now that sharpness of Grecian wit, which heretofore invented lies, having at least some shew of beauty; but on this subject utters only naked and undisguised falsehoods? Where is now that Latin industry, not inferior to Grecian, which in this instance so beguiles, and is beguiled, with the vainest of words? (Pt. II)

A perfectly new and unheard-of definer of Freewill; who leaves heathen philosophers, Pelagians, Sophists, and all others, far behind him! (Pt. III)


(date of all utterances uncertain, but many sayings are listed as from the 1530s)

[my citations in this first portion are from the volume (in my own library) published by The Lutheran Publication Society, no date given (available online); translation by William Hazlitt in 1857; another available version online has different pagination and slightly different numbering of sayings in some portions; e.g., my citing of #667 below is #671 in the online version]

[ “. . . Erasmus, one of the learnedest men in the whole world . . . ” CCLXII, p. 146 or p. 120 in the second online version]

Erasmus of Rotterdam is the vilest miscreant that ever disgraced the earth . . . He is a very Caiaphas.

(#667, 350-351; #671 and p. 283 in the second online version)

. . . he appears to see no difference between Jesus Christ our Saviour, and the wise pagan legislator Solon. He sneers at St. Paul and St. John . . . Shame upon thee, accursed wretch! ‘Tis a mere Momus, making his mows and mocks at everything and everybody, at God and man, at papist and protestant, but all the while using such shuffling and double-meaning terms, that no one can lay hold of him to any effectual purpose. Whenever I pray, I pray a curse upon Erasmus.

(#668, 351; #672 and p. 283 in the second online version)

Erasmus was poisoned at Rome and at Venice with epicurean doctrines. He extols the Arians more highly than the Papists . . . he died like an epicurean, without any one comfort of God.

(#675, 355; #679 and p. 286 in the second online version)

This I do leave behind me as my will and testament, whereupon I make you witnesses. I hold Erasmus of Rotterdam to be Christ’s most bitter enemy. In his catechism, of all his writings that which I can least endure, he teaches nothing decided; not one word says: Do this, or, Do not this; he only therein throws error and despair into youthful consciences. He wrote a book against me, called Hyperaspistes, wherein he proposed to defend his work on free-will, against which I wrote my De servo Arbitrio, which has never yet been confuted, nor will it ever be by Erasmus, for I am certain that what I wrote on the matter is the unchangeable truth of God. If God live in heaven, Erasmus will one day know and feel what he has done.

Erasmus is the enemy to true religion, the open adversary of Christ, the complete and faithful picture and image of Epicurus and of Lucian.

(#676, 355; #680 and pp. 286-287 in the second online version)

I have cracked many hollow nuts, and yet I thought they had been good, but they fouled my mouth, and filled it with dust; Carlstadt and Erasmus are mere hollow nuts, and foul the mouth.

(#694, 364; #698 and p. 293 in the second online version)

* * * * *
[The following excerpts come from Conversations With Luther: Selections From Recently Published Sources of the Table Talk, translated and edited by Preserved Smith and Herbert Percival Gallinger, New York: The Pilgrim Press, 1915]

Lorenzo Valla . . . sought simplicity both in piety and in style. Erasmus seeks it in style only; piety he ridicules. . . . Erasmus wishes to leave his faith behind him, which he dares not confess during life. Such men will not say what they think. They are paltry fellows who would measure everything by their own wisdom and think that if God existed he would make another and a better world (1). . . . when I say, ‘Hallowed by thy name,’ I curse Erasmus and all who think contrary to the word . . . Severus [Wolfgang Schiefer] said of Erasmus: “. . . A certain priest told me that he believed neither in God nor in immortality, (2) and that he once burst forth into this blasphemy: ‘that if God did not exist, he would like to rule the world with his own wisdom,’ ” Then said the doctor [Luther]: “He arrogates to himself the divinity he would like to take from Christ, whom, in his Colloquies, he compares with Priapus (3) and whom he mocks in his Catechism and especially in his detestable Miscellany. He despised all others . . . In my letter which displeased Philip I challenged him but he would not fight. . . .”

“Erasmus of Rotterdam,” said Luther, “thinks that the Christian religion is either a comedy or a tragedy, and that the things therein described never actually happened, but were invented for the purpose of moral training.”

As Luther examined a likeness of Erasmus, he said: “The expression on his face indicates shrewdness, but he only scoffs at God and religion. He uses, to be sure, the greatest words, “Holy Christ, the holy Word, the holy sacraments,’ but in truth he is very indifferent to these things. . . .”

“To Erasmus it seems ridiculous that God should be born of a poor maid. Lucian has laughed at all the gods, but Erasmus is a greater knave than he. But at the last day he will feel differently, and [seeing us among the saved] will say: ‘I thought the life of those people was foolish.'”

“Erasmus is bad through and through, as is evident in all his books . . . To him, ‘Father, Son and Holy Ghost’ is a ridiculous thing. . . .”

“Erasmus is worthy of great hatred. I warn you all to regard him as God’s enemy. He inflames the baser passions of young boys and regards Christ as I regard Klaus Narr. (4) . . .”

“I wonder that a man can fall so far from the knowledge of God as Erasmus has fallen. He is as certain that there is no God and no eternal life, as I am certain that I see. Lucian is not so certain of it as Erasmus.” . . .

“With Erasmus it is translation and nothing else. He is never in earnest. He is ambiguous and a caviller. . . . He abuses all of us Christians without discrimination, not excepting Paul nor any other of the pious. Master Philip told me that Erasmus said on one occasion that he wished to overthrow the foundations of our doctrine; and this he is trying exceedingly hard to accomplish in all his writings. . . .”

Speaking of Erasmus’ edition of the New Testament, Luther said: “I wish that it might be suppressed because of its Epicureanism and the many false doctrines which have been inserted. He has destroyed many, body and soul. He is one cause of the Sacramentarians. He has injured the Gospel as much as he has advanced the science of grammar. He has been a shameless fellow. Zwingli was led astray by him . . . He died without the cross and without light. . . .”

“It is the opinion of the pope and all the cardinals, and even of Erasmus, that religion is all a fable, but that it should be preserved in order that the royal power and the papal monarchy may be maintained. . . . For this purpose they make use of religion, in the truth of which they do not believe.”

[1] Editor’s note: “The date of this saying is 1532.”

[2] “No such expression or opinions are found in Erasmus’ works. Charges of atheism were bandied about freely at this time, for any serious doctrinal disagreement was regarded as tantamount to it. . . . This saying occurs in 1540.”

[3] “Erasmus did not compare Christ and Priapus, but Luther considered the close juxtaposition of their names, in Erasmus’ Colloquies, blasphemous.”

[4] The court fool of the Ernestine princes. (pp. 105-112)

Erasmus, Oecolampadius, Zwingli and Carlstadt wish to measure everything by their own wisdom, and so are confounded. I, however, thank God that I know and believe that God is much wiser than I am. (p. 114)

“Jerome is a babbler like Erasmus; he tried to talk big and did not succeed. He promises the reader something but gives nothing. I wonder, too, at that time, hardly three hundred years after Christ, when the tongues were so well understood, there was such blindness in the Church.” (p. 228)

February 2, 2017


Desiderius Erasmus (1466/1469-1536); portrait (1523) by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/1498-1543) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

(Seven Parts)
Part I: Erasmus-Luther Correspondence: 1517 to 1534


[ see the index of topics at the end ]

[Erasmus’s words are in black, Luther’s in blue; those of others are in green]

For a general overview of Erasmus, see the Wikipedia entry.

Erasmus: Greek scholar and Christian humanist, is widely regarded as the greatest man of letters and intellect of the 16th century. He was highly critical of corruption in the Church and was initially somewhat favorable to the Protestant cause, but soon (after 1521 or so) turned against it after he saw the direction it was going, and remained a lifelong Catholic. He engaged in a famous written debate with Luther on the issue of free will.

Protestant Church historian Philip Schaff glowingly described Erasmus:

Desiderius Erasmus . . . was the king among scholars in the early part of the sixteenth century. He combined native genius, classical and biblical learning, lively imagination, keen wit, and refined taste. He was the most cultivated man of his age, and the admired leader of scholastic Europe from Germany to Italy and Spain, from England to Hungary . . . No man before or since acquired such undisputed sovereignty in the republic of letters . . . Erasmus shines in the front rank of the humanists . . . on the dividing line between the middle ages and modern times. His great mission was to revive the spirit of classical and Christian antiquity, and to make it a reforming power within the church. . . . he gave [impulse] to classical, biblical, and patristic studies, and [reformed] by his satirical exposures of ecclesiastical abuses and monastic ignorance and bigotry.

. . . Protestants should never forget the immense debt of gratitude which they owe to the first editor of the Greek Testament . . . His exegetical opinions still receive and deserve the attention of commentators. To him we owe also the first scholarly editions of the Fathers, especially of Jerome, with whom he was most in sympathy . . . he cannot be charged with apostasy or even with inconsistency. He never was a Protestant, and never meant to be one.

. . . Erasmus was, like most of the German and English humanists, a sincere and enlightened believer in Christianity, . . . He devoted his brilliant genius and classical lore to the service of religion. He revered the Bible as a divine revelation, and zealously promoted its study. . . . as the true source of theology and piety . . . He had a sharp eye to the abuses of the Church, and endeavored to reform them in a peaceful way. He wished to lead theology back . . . to Scriptural simplicity, and to promote an inward, spiritual piety.

(The History of the Christian Church, Volume VII: History of Modern Christianity, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910, Chapter IV, section 71)

(1) I am at present reading our Erasmus, but my heart recoils more and more from him. But one thing I admire is, that he constantly and learnedly accuses not only the monks, but the priests, of a lazy, deep-rooted ignorance. Only, I fear, he does not spread Christ and God’s grace sufficiently abroad, of which he knows very little. The human is to him of more importance than the divine.

(Luther to John Lange, 1 March 1517, in Margaret A. Currie, editor and translator, The Letters of Martin Luther, London: Macmillan & Co., 1908, 13-14)

(2) . . . the dialogue with Erasmus . . . was so delightful, so full of humour, so clever, and I would almost say, so woven together in such an Erasmus-like manner, that the reader is tempted to laugh and enjoy the failings in the Church of Christ, which ought, rather, to grieve all Christians, and be borne before the Lord in prayer.

(Luther to Georg Spalatin, November 1517, in Margaret A. Currie, editor and translator, The Letters of Martin Luther, London: Macmillan & Co., 1908, 19)

(3) But among those who either passionately hate or slothfully neglect good letters (that is, among all men), I always praise and defend Erasmus as much as I can, and I am very careful not to ventilate my disagreement with him lest perchance I should thus confirm them in their hatred of him. Yet, if I may speak as a theologian rather than as a grammarian, there are many things in Erasmus which seem to me to be far from the knowledge of Christ; otherwise there is no man more learned or ingenious than he, not even Jerome, whom he so much extols. But if you communicate this opinion of mine to others, you will violate the laws of friendship.

(Luther to Georg Spalatin, 18 January 1518, in Theodore G. Tappert, translator, Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel, Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2003, 111-113)

(4) Luther had said many things excellently well. I could wish, however, that he would be less rude in his manner. He would have stronger support behind him, and might do real good. But, at any rate, unless we stand by him when he is right, no one hereafter will dare to speak the truth. I can give no opinion about his positive doctrines; but one good thing he has done, and has been a public benefactor by doing it — he has forced the controversialists to examine the early Fathers for themselves.

(Erasmus to the “rector of the school at Erfurt,” July? 1518, in James Anthony Froude, translator and editor, Life and Letters of Erasmus, London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1894, 215)

(5) Martin Luther, who is a keen supporter of your reputation, desires your good opinion on all points.

(Melanchthon to Erasmus, 5 January 1519, in Peter Macardle and Clarence H. Miller, translators, Charles Trinkhaus, editor, Collected Works of Erasmus, Vol. 76: Controversies: De Libero Arbitrio / Hyperaspistes I, Univ. of Toronto Press, 1999, xxxi)

(6) . . . having heard . . . that my name is known to you through the slight piece I wrote about indulgences, and learning . . . that you have not only seen but approved the stuff I have written, I feel bound to acknowledge, even in a very barbarous letter, that wonderful spirit of yours which has so much enriched me and all of us.

(Luther to Erasmus, 28 March 1519, in Peter Macardle and Clarence H. Miller, translators, Charles Trinkhaus, editor, Collected Works of Erasmus, Vol. 76: Controversies: De Libero Arbitrio / Hyperaspistes I, Univ. of Toronto Press, 1999, xxxii)

(7) . . . there are many persons of distinction who wish equally well to both Erasmus and Luther. There is nothing his enemies wish more than to see you indignant with him. He himself and his party are devoted to you.

(Wolfgang Capito to Erasmus, 8 April 1519, in Peter Macardle and Clarence H. Miller, translators, Charles Trinkhaus, editor, Collected Works of Erasmus, Vol. 76: Controversies: De Libero Arbitrio / Hyperaspistes I, Univ. of Toronto Press, 1999, xxxi)

(8) These cunning fellows mix allusions to the ancient tongues and good writing and humane culture, as though Luther trusted to these for his defence, or these were the sources whence heresies were born. . . . I know as little of Luther as I do of any man, so that I cannot be suspected of bias towards a friend. His works it is not for me to defend or criticize, as hitherto I have not read them except in snatches. His life, at least, is highly spoken of by all who know him.

(Erasmus to Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony, 14 April 1519, in Peter Macardle and Clarence H. Miller, translators, Charles Trinkhaus, editor, Collected Works of Erasmus, Vol. 76: Controversies: De Libero Arbitrio / Hyperaspistes I, Univ. of Toronto Press, 1999, xxxii)

(9) Martin Luther’s way of life wins all men’s approval here [in Louvain], but opinions vary about his teaching. I myself have not yet read his books. He has made some justified criticisms, but I wish they had been as happily expressed as they were outspoken.

(Erasmus to Melanchthon, 22 April 1519, in Peter Macardle and Clarence H. Miller, translators, Charles Trinkhaus, editor, Collected Works of Erasmus, Vol. 76: Controversies: De Libero Arbitrio / Hyperaspistes I, Univ. of Toronto Press, 1999, xxxi)

(10) I think one gets further by courtesy and moderation than by clamour. That was how Christ brought the world under his sway . . . It is more expedient to protest against those who misuse the authority of bishops than against the bishops themselves . . . Things which are of such wide acceptance that they cannot be torn out of men’s minds all at once should be met with argument, close-reasoned forcible argument, rather than bare assertion. . . . Everywhere, we must take pains to do and say nothing out of arrogance or faction; for I think the spirit of Christ would have it so. Meanwhile we must keep our minds above the corruption of anger or hatred, or of ambition; for it is this that lies in wait for us when our religious zeal is in full course. . . . I am not instructing you to do this, only to do what you do always.

(Erasmus to Luther, May 1519, in Peter Macardle and Clarence H. Miller, translators, Charles Trinkhaus, editor, Collected Works of Erasmus, Vol. 76: Controversies: De Libero Arbitrio / Hyperaspistes I, Univ. of Toronto Press, 1999, xxxiii)

(11) Permit me to say that I have never had any thing to do . . . with the cause of Luther. . . . Luther is a perfect stranger to me, and I have never had time to read his books beyond merely glancing over a few pages. . . . Luther had written to me in a very Christian tone, as I thought; and I replied, advising him incidentally not to write any thing against the Roman Pontiff, nor to encourage a proud or intolerant spirit, but to preach the gospel out of a pure heart …. I am neither Luther’s accuser, nor advocate, nor judge; his heart I would not presume to judge—for that is always a matter of extreme difficulty—still less would I condemn. And yet if I were to defend him, as a good man, which even his enemies admit him to be; as one put upon his trial, a duty which the laws permit even to sworn judges; as one persecuted—which would be only in accordance with the dictates of humanity—and trampled on by the bounden enemies of learning, who merely use him as a handle for the accomplishment of their designs, where would be the blame, so long as I abstained from mixing myself up with his cause? In short, I think it is my duty as a Christian to support Luther in this sense, that, if he is innocent, I should not wish him to be crushed by a set of malignant villains; if he is in error, I would rather see him put right than destroyed: for thus I should be acting in accordance with the example of Christ, who, as the prophet witnesseth, quencheth not the smoking flax, nor breaketh the bruised reed.

(Erasmus to Albrecht, Cardinal-Archbishop of Mainz, 1 November 1519, in Philip Schaff, The History of the Christian Church, Vol. VII: History of Modern Christianity, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910, Chapter IV, section 72)

(12) Luther’s party have urged me to join him, and Luther’s enemies have done their best to drive me to it by their furious attacks on me in their sermons. Neither have succeeded. Christ I know: Luther I know not. The Roman Church I know, and death will not part me from it till the Church departs from Christ. I abhor sedition. Would that Luther and the Germans abhorred it equally.. . . Luther has hurt himself more than he has hurt his opponents by his last effusions, while the attacks on him are so absurd that many think the Pope wrong in spite of themselves. I approve of those who stand by the Pope, but I could wish them to be wiser than they are. . . . they mistake in linking him and me together . . .

They pretend that Luther has borrowed from me. No lie can be more impudent. He may have borrowed from me as heretics borrow from Evangelists and Apostles, but not a syllable else. . . . I have said nothing except that Luther ought to be answered and not crushed. . . .

I would have the Church purified of evil, lest the good in it suffer by connection with what is indefensible; but in avoiding the Scylla of Luther I would have us also avoid Charybdis. . . . I have not defended Luther even in jest. . . . But be assured of this, if any movement is in progress injurious to the Christian religion, or dangerous to the public peace or to the supremacy of the Holy See, it does not proceed from Erasmus. Time will show it. I have not deviated in what I have written one hair’s breadth from the Church’s teaching. . . .

Many great persons have entreated me to support Luther. I have answered always that I will support him when he is on the Catholic side. . . . I advise everyone who consults me to submit to the Pope. I was the first to oppose the publication of Luther’s books. I recommended Luther himself to publish nothing revolutionary.

(Erasmus to Louis Marlianus, 25 March 1520, in James Anthony Froude, translator and editor, Life and Letters of Erasmus, London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1894, 261-163)

(13) May Christ direct Luther’s actions to God’s glory, and confound those who are seeking their own interests. In Luther’s enemies I perceive more of the spirit of this world than of the Spirit of God. I wish Luther himself would be quiet for a while. He injures learning, and does himself no good, while morals and manners grow worse and worse. What he says may be true, but there are times and seasons. Truth need not always be proclaimed on the house-top.

(Erasmus to Georg Spalatin, 6 July 1520, in James Anthony Froude, translator and editor, Life and Letters of Erasmus, London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1894, 267)

(14) It is a serious matter to challenge men who cannot be overthrown without a major upheaval. And I fear upheavals of that kind all the more, because they so often burst out in a different direction from what was intended.

(Erasmus to Luther, 1 August 1520, in Peter Macardle and Clarence H. Miller, translators, Charles Trinkhaus, editor, Collected Works of Erasmus, Vol. 76: Controversies: De Libero Arbitrio / Hyperaspistes I, Univ. of Toronto Press, 1999, xxxix)

(15) I am filled with forebodings about that wretched Luther; the conspiracy against him is strong everywhere . . . If only he had followed my advice and refrained from that offensive and seditious stuff! He would have done more good, and been much less unpopular. One man’s undoing would be a small matter; but if they are successful in this campaign, their insolence will be past all bearing. They will not rest until they have overthrown all knowledge of languages and all humane studies. . . . I am having nothing to do with this miserable business . . . There is actually a bishopric waiting for me, if I will attack Luther in print.

(Erasmus to the Bishop of Utrecht, Gerhard Geldenhouwer, 9 September 1520, in Peter Macardle and Clarence H. Miller, translators, Charles Trinkhaus, editor, Collected Works of Erasmus, Vol. 76: Controversies: De Libero Arbitrio / Hyperaspistes I, Univ. of Toronto Press, 1999, xxxix)

(16) No one has been more distressed at this Luther business than I have been. Would that I could have stopped it at the outset. . . . But it has been ill-managed from the first. It rose from the avarice of a party of monks, and has grown step by step to the present fury. The Pope’s dignity must, of course, be supported, but I wish he knew how that dignity suffers from officious fools who imagine they are defending him. Their stupid screams have more recommended Luther to the multitude than any other thing. I told them they must answer him and no one has done it. There have been a few replies, but too mild to satisfy his accusers, who have only been more furious. Some of them hate me more than they hate him, because I have tried to bring them back to primitive Christianity. . . . Luther’s revilers . . . call themselves champions of the Holy See. If the Pope could hear them he would shut their mouths in disgust. . . . Curses and threats may beat the fire down for the moment, but it will burst out worse than ever.

(Erasmus to Francis Chisigat, 11 September 1520, in James Anthony Froude, translator and editor, Life and Letters of Erasmus, London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1894, 269-270)

(17) I have no acquaintance with Luther, nor have I ever read his books, except perhaps ten or twelve pages, and that only by snatches. From what I then saw, I judged him to be well qualified for expounding the Scriptures in the manner of the Fathers,—a work greatly needed in an age like this, which is so excessively given to mere subtleties, to the neglect of really important questions. Accordingly, I have favored his good, but not his bad, qualities, or rather I have favored Christ’s glory in him. I was among the first to foresee the danger there was of this matter ending in violence, and no one ever hated violence more than I do. Indeed, I even went so far as to threaten John Froben the printer, to prevent him publishing his books. I wrote frequently and industriously to my friends, begging that they would admonish this man to observe Christian meekness in his writings, and do nothing to disturb the peace of the church. And when he himself wrote to me two years ago, I lovingly admonished him what I wished him to avoid; and I would he had followed my advice. This letter, I am informed, has been shown to your Holiness, I suppose in order to prejudice me, whereas it ought rather to conciliate your Holiness’s favor towards me.

(Erasmus to Pope Leo X, 13 September 1520, in Philip Schaff, The History of the Christian Church, Vol. VII: History of Modern Christianity, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910, Chapter IV, section 72)

(18) Nicolas Egmond . . . turned on me and called me Luther’s ally. It is false. I had seen gifts in Luther which, if rightly used, might make him an ornament to Christ’s Church; and when infamous libels were spread about him I said I would sooner see him corrected than destroyed. If this is to be his ally, I am his ally still, and so is the Pope, and so are you if you are a Christian. But this Carmelite tells the people that I defend Luther on the points on which he is condemned . . .

An ally of Luther? I have never been an ally of Luther. There are good and learned men who maintain that Luther has written nothing for which there is not sound authority; and I neither approve nor ever will approve of crushing a man before he has been confuted by reason and Scripture, and offered an opportunity of recanting. . . . The clergy are told to preach against him, but they need not call him Antichrist or a monster of wickedness. I advised that he should be read and answered, and that there should be no appealing to the mob. . . . By burning Luther’s books you may rid him off your bookshelves, but you will not rid him out of the minds of mankind.

(Erasmus to Godschalk, moderator of the University of Louvain, 18 October 1520, in James Anthony Froude, translator and editor, Life and Letters of Erasmus, London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1894, 273-275)

(19) Even if every word Luther wrote were true, he has written in such a way as to prevent the truth from doing any good. On the other side, those who have rushed into this business headlong have behaved before the public so badly, that even if they had an excellent case, they could only do it harm by the clumsiness of their support . . . In short, these stormy times need some great master of exceptional skill to guide the course of the affair . . . who can cut down this monster in such a way that it does not grow afresh hydra-headed.

(Erasmus to Konrad Peutinger, 9 November 1520, in Peter Macardle and Clarence H. Miller, translators, Charles Trinkhaus, editor, Collected Works of Erasmus, Vol. 76: Controversies: De Libero Arbitrio / Hyperaspistes I, Univ. of Toronto Press, 1999, xlv)

(20) His De captivitate Babylonica alienates many people, and he is proposing something more frightful every day . . . Luther destroys himself with his own weapons.

(Erasmus to Nicolaas Everaerts, 25 February 1521, in Peter Macardle and Clarence H. Miller, translators, Charles Trinkhaus, editor, Collected Works of Erasmus, Vol. 76: Controversies: De Libero Arbitrio / Hyperaspistes I, Univ. of Toronto Press, 1999, xlvi-xlvii)

(21) I greatly wonder, my dear Jonas, what god has stirred up the heart of Luther, in so far as he assails with such license of pen the Roman pontiff, all the universities, philosophy, and the mendicant orders . . . Perhaps there were some who out of honest zeal favored calling the orders and princes of the Church to better things. But I do not know if they are those who under this pretext covet the wealth of the churchmen. I judge nothing to be more wicked and destructive of public tranquility than this . . . This certainly is a fine turn of affairs, if property is wickedly taken away from priests so that soldiers may make use of it in worse fashion; and the latter squander their own wealth, and sometimes that of others, so that no one benefits. I do not even agree with those men, my dear Jonas, who say that Luther, provoked by the intolerable shamelessness of his adversaries, could not maintain a Christian moderation. Regardless of how others conduct themselves, he who had undertaken such a role ought to be faithful to himself and disregard all other matters. Finally, a way out should have been provided before he descended into that pit . . . We see the affair brought to that point that I reasonably see no good outcome, unless Christ through His own skill turn the rashness of these men into a public good . . . How great a swarm of evils this foolhardiness now yields! And ill will greatly weighs down the study of letters as well as many good men who in the beginning were not particularly hostile to Luther, either because they hoped he would handle the matter differently or on account of the enemies they had in common . . . And here, my dear Jonas, I have been forced at times to wish for evidence of the evangelical spirit when I saw Luther, but especially his supporters, strive with skill, as it were, to involve others in a hateful and dangerous affair. . . . So far am I from ever having wished to be involved in a faction as dangerous as this! . . . Moreover, I am desperately afraid lest among the other nations this affair bring a great disgrace to our Germany, as the great mass of men are accustomed to impute the foolishness of a few to the entire nation. What else has been accomplished, therefore I ask, by so many harsh little books, by so much foolish talk, by so many formidable threats, and by so much bombast . . . ? . . . Luther could have taught the evangelical philosophy with great profit to the Christian flock, he could have benefited the world by bringing forth books, if he had restrained from those things which could only end in disturbance. . . . Above all, I am of the opinion that discord, ruinous for all, must be avoided. And that thus by what I might call a holy artfulness the needs of the time must be served, that by no means the treasury of the Gospel truth be betrayed, whence can come the reformation of corrupt public morals. Perhaps someone will ask whether I have another mind regarding Luther than I had formerly. No, indeed, I have the same mind. I have always wished that, with changes made of certain things which were displeasing to me, he discuss purely the Gospel philosophy, from which the morals of our age have departed, alas, too far. I have always preferred that he be corrected rather than suppressed. I desired him to carry on the work of Christ in such a way that the leaders of the Church either approved or certainly not disapproved.

(Erasmus to Justus Jonas, 10 May 1521, in Christian Humanism and the Reformation [selections from Erasmus], edited and translated by John C. Olin, New York: Harper & Row, 1965, 152, 157-159, 161-163)

(22) By the bitterness of the Lutherans, and the stupidity of some who show more zeal than wisdom in their endeavors to heal the present disorders, things have been brought to such a pass, that I, for one, can see no issue but in the turning upside down of the whole world. What evil spirit can have sown this poisonous seed in human affairs? When I was at Cologne, I made every effort that Luther might have the glory of obedience and the Pope of clemency, and some of the sovereigns approved of this advice. But, lo and behold! the burning of the Decretals, the Babylonish Captivity, those propositions of Luther, so much stronger than they need be, have made the evil, it seems, incurable . . . The only thing that remains to us, my dear Berus, is to pray that Christ, supreme in goodness and in power, may turn all to good; for he alone can do so.

(Erasmus to Louis Berus, 14 May 1521, in Philip Schaff, The History of the Christian Church, Vol. VII: History of Modern Christianity, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910, Chapter IV, section 72)

(23) If Luther had written more moderately, even though he had written freely, he would both have been more honored himself, and done more good to the world; but fate has decreed otherwise. I only wonder that the man is still alive …. They say that an edict is in readiness far more severe than the Pope’s bull; but from fear, or some other reason, it has not yet been published. I am surprised that the Pope should employ such agents, some of them illiterate men, and all of them headstrong and haughty, for the transaction of such affairs. Nothing can exceed the pride or violent temper of Cardinal Cajetan, of Charles Miltitz, of Marinus, of Aleander. . . . As to Aleander, he is a complete maniac,—a bad, foolish man.

(Erasmus to Nicolaas Everaerts, May 1521, in Philip Schaff, The History of the Christian Church, Vol. VII: History of Modern Christianity, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910, Chapter IV, section 72)

(24) I was accused on one side from the pulpits of being in a conspiracy with Luther, on the other I was entreated to join him. I saw the peril of neutrality, but I cannot and will not be a rebel. . . . Of course the Church requires reform, but violence is not the way to it. Both parties behaved like maniacs. You may ask me why I have not written against Luther. Because I had no leisure, because I was not qualified, because I would sooner face the lances of the Switzers than the pens of enraged theologians. . . . it is not true that I have done nothing. Luther’s friends (who were once mine also) do not think so. They have deserted me and call me a Pelagian. . . . In Flanders I am abused as a Lutheran. In Germany I am cried out against as an anti-Lutheran.

(Erasmus to Peter Barbirius, 13 August 1521, in James Anthony Froude, translator and editor, Life and Letters of Erasmus, London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1894, 293-295)

(25) Luther’s movement was not connected with learning, but it has brought learning into ill-repute . . . I suppose I must write something about him.

(Erasmus to Archbishop Warham, 24 August 1521, in James Anthony Froude, translator and editor, Life and Letters of Erasmus, London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1894, 295)

(26) Neither Capito’s nor Erasmus’ opinion moves me in the least. They are only doing what I suspected. Indeed I have been afraid that some day I should have some trouble with one or the other of them. For I saw that Erasmus was far from the knowledge of grace, since in all his writings he is not concerned for the cross but for peace. He thinks that everything should be handled in a civil manner and with a certain benevolent kindness. But Behemoth [Satan] pays no attention and nothing improves by this.

(Luther to Georg Spalatin, 9 September 1521, in Peter Macardle and Clarence H. Miller, translators, Charles Trinkhaus, editor, Collected Works of Erasmus, Vol. 76: Controversies: De Libero Arbitrio / Hyperaspistes I, Univ. of Toronto Press, 1999, lvi)

(27) I cannot help wondering what god swayed Luther’s mind so that, while so many friends tried to deter him from provoking the pope, he has written always with more and more asperity . . . But see what results they have achieved! They have distorted humane studies with a burden of unpopularity . . . They have opened up a great rift which divides the world everywhere, which will last maybe for many years and get steadily worse. In return for a clumsy attempt at liberty, slavery is redoubled to such a degree that it is forbidden even to maintain the truth.

(Erasmus to Willibald Pirckheimer, 29 November 1521, in Peter Macardle and Clarence H. Miller, translators, Charles Trinkhaus, editor, Collected Works of Erasmus, Vol. 76: Controversies: De Libero Arbitrio / Hyperaspistes I, Univ. of Toronto Press, 1999, li)

(28) For a long time now I have been waiting to see what will be the upshot of this sorry business over Luther. Unquestionably some spirit is at work in this affair; whether it be of God, I do not know. I, who have never supported Luther, except in so far as one supports a man by urging him towards better things, am a heretic to both sides. Among our own people, a few who have other reasons to dislike me are actually trying to persuade the emperor that I am a leader of the rebels, for no better reason than my failure to publish against Luther. Luther’s party in their public utterance tear me to pieces as a Pelagian, because they think I give more weight than they do to free will.

(Erasmus to Willibald Pirckheimer, 12 February 1522, in R.A.B. Mynors, translator, Collected Works of Erasmus, Vol. IX, Correspondence: Letters 1252-1355 [1522-1523], Univ. of Toronto Press, 1999, 22-23)

(29) Now the evil must be rooted out, the contagion is so widely spread.

(Erasmus to Bishop Thomas Wolsey, 7 March 1522, in Preserved Smith and Charles Michael Jacobs, translators and editors, Luther’s Correspondence and Other Contemporary Letters, Vol. II: 1521-1530, Philadelphia: The Lutheran Publication Society, 1918, 98)

(30) I would sooner meet death ten times over than start or encourage a perilous schism.

(Erasmus to Luis Nunez Coronel, 21 April 1522, in Peter Macardle and Clarence H. Miller, translators, Charles Trinkhaus, editor, Collected Works of Erasmus, Vol. 76: Controversies: De Libero Arbitrio / Hyperaspistes I, Univ. of Toronto Press, 1999, lii)

(31) I . . . think that Erasmus knows less, or seems to know less, about predestination than the schools of the sophists have known . . . Erasmus is not to be feared either in this or in almost any other really important subject that pertains to Christian doctrine. Truth is mightier than eloquence, the spirit stronger than genius, faith greater than learning . . . I think it unwise . . . for him to array the power of his eloquence against me . . . But if he casts the die, he will see that Christ fears neither the gates of hell nor the powers of the air . . . I know what is in this man just as I know the plots of Satan . . .

(Luther to Duke George of Saxony ?, 28 May 1522, in Peter Macardle and Clarence H. Miller, translators, Charles Trinkhaus, editor, Collected Works of Erasmus, Vol. 76: Controversies: De Libero Arbitrio / Hyperaspistes I, Univ. of Toronto Press, 1999, lvii)

(32) If your Holiness instructs me, I will make so bold as to give you an outline in a secret letter of my own proposal . . . for putting an end to this evil in such a way that it will not easily sprout again.

(Erasmus to Pope Adrian VI, 22 December 1522, in Peter Macardle and Clarence H. Miller, translators, Charles Trinkhaus, editor, Collected Works of Erasmus, Vol. 76: Controversies: De Libero Arbitrio / Hyperaspistes I, Univ. of Toronto Press, 1999, liii)

(33) . . . many think this trouble should be healed by severity; but I fear the outcome shows that this plan has long been a mistake . . . This cancer has gone too far to be curable by the knife or cautery . . . if it has been decided to overwhelm this evil by imprisonment and scourging, by confiscation, exile, excommunication, and death, there will be no need of any plan from me.

(Erasmus to Pope Adrian VI, 22 March 1523, in Peter Macardle and Clarence H. Miller, translators, Charles Trinkhaus, editor, Collected Works of Erasmus, Vol. 76: Controversies: De Libero Arbitrio / Hyperaspistes I, Univ. of Toronto Press, 1999, lv-lvi)

(34) . . . what Luther writes about the tyranny and the greed and the immorality of the Roman curia — I wish, my dear Barbier, that there were no truth in it! I am still made wretched by the fear that things will end in open conflict. We hear a great deal about the liberty of the gospel; but they have different things in view. Under this screen some seek a frenzied freedom to become the slaves of their own carnal appetites; some cast envious eyes at the resources of the priesthood; and some bravely lavish their own wealth on drinking, wenching, and gambling and are agape for the chance to plunder others. . . . When things are in such confusion, it is like a house on fire: everyone will seize what he had set his heart on.

(Erasmus to Pierre Barbier, 17 April 1523, in R.A.B. Mynors and Alexander Dalzell, translators; annotated by James M. Estes, Collected Works of Erasmus, Vol. X, Correspondence: Letters 1356-1534 [1523-1524], Univ. of Toronto Press, 1992, 5-7)

(35) What Erasmus thinks, or pretends to think, in judging things spiritual, is abundantly shown in his books, from the first to the last. I note the pricks he gives me now and then, but as he does it without openly declaring himself my foe, I act as if I was unaware of his sly attacks, though I understand him better than he thinks. He has done what he was called to do; he has brought us from godless studies to a knowledge of the languages; perhaps he will die with Moses in the plains of Moab, for he does not go forward to the better studies — those that pertain to godliness. I greatly wish he would stop commenting on the Holy Scriptures and writing his Paraphrases, for he is not equal to this task . . . He has done enough in showing us the evil; to show us the good and to lead us into the promised land, he is, I see, unable. . . . he is a man who neither can nor will have a right judgment about them [the Scriptures], as almost all the world is now beginning to perceive.

(Luther to Oecolampadius, 20 June 1523, in Preserved Smith and Charles Michael Jacobs, translators and editors, Luther’s Correspondence and Other Contemporary Letters, Vol. II: 1521-1530, Philadelphia: The Lutheran Publication Society, 1918, 190-191)

(36) The so-called Anabaptists have been muttering anarchy for some time now, and other monstrosities are hatching in the way of doctrine which if they once break out into the open could make Luther look almost orthodox.

(Erasmus to Cuthbert Tunstall, bishop of London, end of June 1523, in R.A.B. Mynors and Alexander Dalzell, translators; annotated by James M. Estes, Collected Works of Erasmus, Vol. X, Correspondence: Letters 1356-1534 [1523-1524], Univ. of Toronto Press, 1992, 30-34)

(37) . . . the man is so far from any knowledge of things Christian . . . Let him learn Christ and bid farewell to human wisdom . . . I have no hard feeling for him, but only true pity . . .

(Luther to Conrad Pellican, 1 October 1523, in Preserved Smith and Charles Michael Jacobs, translators and editors, Luther’s Correspondence and Other Contemporary Letters, Vol. II: 1521-1530, Philadelphia: The Lutheran Publication Society, 1918, 204 ff.)

(38) For since we see that the Lord has not given you courage or sense to assail those monsters openly and confidently with us, we are not the men to exact what is beyond your power and measure. . . . The whole world knows your services to letters and how you have made them flourish and thus prepared a path for the direct study of the Bible. For this glorious and splendid gift in you we ought to thank God. . . . For although you will not side with us, and although you injure or make sceptical many pious persons by your impiety and hypocrisy, yet I cannot and do not accuse you of willful obstinacy. . . . I beg that meanwhile, if you can do nothing else, you will remain a spectator of the conflict, and not join our enemies, and especially that you publish no book against me, as I shall write none against you. . . . We have fought long enough, we must take care not to eat each other up. This would be a terrible catastrophe, as neither one of us really wishes harm to religion, and without judging each other, both may do good.

(Luther to Erasmus, around 15 April 1524, in Preserved Smith and Charles Michael Jacobs, translators and editors, Luther’s Correspondence and Other Contemporary Letters, Vol. II: 1521-1530, Philadelphia: The Lutheran Publication Society, 1918, 228 ff.)

(39) No, I do not concede that you passion for the purity of the gospel is more sincere than my own . . . What you describe as weakness and ignorance is partly conscience and partly conviction. When I look at certain passages in your work, I am much afraid that Satan is using his wiles to lead you astray; but there are other passages which so delight me that I wish my fears were groundless . . . why should it upset you if someone wants to argue with you in the hope of deepening his understanding? Perhaps Erasmus’ opposition will do more for the gospel than all the support you receive from dullards . . . I only hope it does not have a tragic ending!

(Erasmus to Luther, 8 May 1524, in Peter Macardle and Clarence H. Miller, translators, Charles Trinkhaus, editor, Collected Works of Erasmus, Vol. 76: Controversies: De Libero Arbitrio / Hyperaspistes I, Univ. of Toronto Press, 1999, lxvii)

(40) I thought Luther and his doctrine, such as it is, to be a sort of necessary evil in the corrupt state of the Church, and although the medicine was somewhat bitter and violent, I hoped that it would produce some health in the body of the people of Christ. Now, however, since I find that many people are interpreting my moderation as collusion with Luther — with whom I have never had any secret agreement — and since I see, besides, that under cover of the Gospel, a new people is growing up, wordy, shameless and intractable, such people, in a word, as Luther himself cannot endure (though, to be sure, they revile Luther as much as they despise the bishops and princes), I have gone into the arena . . .

(Erasmus to Duke George of Saxony, 6 September 1524, in Preserved Smith and Charles Michael Jacobs, translators and editors, Luther’s Correspondence and Other Contemporary Letters, Vol. II: 1521-1530, Philadelphia: The Lutheran Publication Society, 1918, 250-251)

(41) . . . there are some people in your camp who cry to heaven that the gospel is overthrown if anyone resists their mad conduct. The value of the gospel? not in liberty to sin without penalty, but in keeping us from sin even when no penalty exists.

(Erasmus to Melanchthon, 6 September 1524, in Peter Macardle and Clarence H. Miller, translators, Charles Trinkhaus, editor, Collected Works of Erasmus, Vol. 76: Controversies: De Libero Arbitrio / Hyperaspistes I, Univ. of Toronto Press, 1999, lxxi)

(42) Erasmus has written on the free will. We have sent you the book. He seems to have treated us without abuse . . . I greatly wish that this subject, which is surely the chief thing in the Christian religion, may be threshed out diligently, and for this reason I am almost glad that Erasmus has taken up the battle. I have long hoped that Luther might have some wise antagonist in this matter, and if Erasmus is not that, I am greatly deceived . . .

(Melanchthon to Georg Spalatin, September 1524, in Preserved Smith and Charles Michael Jacobs, translators and editors, Luther’s Correspondence and Other Contemporary Letters, Vol. II: 1521-1530, Philadelphia: The Lutheran Publication Society, 1918, 255)

(43) So far as the Diatribe on the Freedom of the Will is concerned, it has been received her very calmly. . . . Your moderation has given great pleasure, though here and there you do sprinkle in some pepper, but Luther is not so irritable that he can swallow nothing. Moreover, he promises that in his answer he will use equal moderation. . . . I observe that Luther is well disposed toward you . . . I wish to convince you also that we honor you and love you. . . . Luther reverently salutes you.

(Melanchthon to Erasmus, 30 September 1524, in Preserved Smith and Charles Michael Jacobs, translators and editors, Luther’s Correspondence and Other Contemporary Letters, Vol. II: 1521-1530, Philadelphia: The Lutheran Publication Society, 1918, 253 ff.)

(44) Last but not least, when I surveyed the excessively corrupt life led by Christians everywhere, even had I had the lowest possible opinion of Luther, I should almost have judged him to be a necessary evil that could not be removed without removing the best thing we had in the present state of affairs. . . . There was a constant clamor from the sophisters: ‘Erasmus and Luther are in league; neither attacks the other.’ The princes expected something, and it was not safe to disappoint them much longer. There were offensive challenges from some of Luther’s friends (though they bring Luther nothing but misfortune), so that had I held my peace it would have looked as though it was fear of their threats that had silenced me. . . . And as for Luther’s feelings towards me, as it is the faith that is at stake, I attach very little importance to them. That his opinion of me is nothing very special he makes clear in many letters he has written to my friends, in which he makes me out to be blind, pitiful, . . . What Luther is like as a person, I do not know. In these parts our new gospel provides us with a new sort of men: headstrong, impudent, deceitful, foul-mouthed, liars, scandalmongers, quarrelsome among themselves, no good to anyone, and a nuisance to all — subversive, noisy, crazy rascals; I dislike them so much that if I knew any city that was free of these gentry, I would move there. . . . And those idiots keep saying that I agree with Luther but am too frightened to say so. I should indeed make a wonderful martyr if to please worthless rogues like them I were to tell lies that would lead to my destruction. In my native country there are a great many who support Luther; had I foreseen that such wretches would be forthcoming, I would have professed myself from the very beginning an enemy of this faction.

(Erasmus to Heinrich Stromer, 10 December 1524, in R.A.B. Mynors and Alexander Dalzell, translators; annotated by James M. Estes, Collected Works of Erasmus, Vol. X, Correspondence: Letters 1356-1534 [1523-1524], Univ. of Toronto Press, 1992, 437-441)

(45) If you were here [Basel], my dear Phillipus, and could see for yourself the tragedy which is unfolding, you would be more ready to admit that it is not without reason that I complain about the behaviour of those who are stirring up trouble in the name of the gospel . . . their reckless conduct obstructs the progress of the humanities and ruins the cause of the gospel. I have no doubt that Luther is offended by these dreadful people. . . . No one has done more harm to the pope than those who are the most ardent champions of the papal cause, and no one has caused greater injury to Luther than those who desperately want to be seen as Lutherans. . . . Far be it from me to be upset by the teaching of the gospel, but there is much in Luther’s views which I find offensive. I dislike particularly the extraordinary vehemence with which he treats whatever doctrine he decides to defend and that he never stops until he is carried to extremes. He was warned about this, but far from toning down his invective, he goes even further than before. . . . to be honest, the general corruption of Christian morals called out for bitter reproof. But my preference was for a temperate frankness so that we might induce even bishops and rulers to share in the endeavour. . . . the gospel has made fine progress if a few monks divest themselves of their cowls . . . or if a few priests are on the lookout for a wife or if images have been thrown out of a couple of churches . . . Is there anything which is less likely to foster Christian piety than for ordinary, uneducated people to hear, and for young people to have it drummed into their ears, that the pope is Antichrist, that bishops and priests are demons, that the constitutions of men are heretical, that confession is a pernicious practice, that works, merit, human effort are heretical ideas, that there is no freedom of the will but all is governed by necessity, and that it makes no difference what works a man performs? Some people spread such ideas abroad without qualifying them in any way, and wicked men take them up and turn them to evil ends. . . . these monsters are encouraged by men whom Luther embraces as the leading exponents of evangelical teaching. In the past the gospel produced a new race of men in the world. What kind of men this gospel is producing, I do not like to think. . . . I could wish that Luther were as successful at turning the minds of princes and prelates towards the religion of the gospel as he is at raising a storm against their vices. I do not greatly care what he thinks of me, especially in a matter like this, where private feelings should not be allowed to count for much. . . . just as your own judgment of me has not made me any less appreciative of your abilities. I am prepared for any insults, however cruel, provided the gospel of Christ can flourish. . . . With regard to the honesty of your motives, I have no doubt that you are conscientious in what you are doing. But as for Luther’s intentions, there is much which makes me hesitate; and if I do not dare to trust my own judgment absolutely, I think, nevertheless, that I can plumb a man’s mind as well from his writings as from his company. Luther has a fiery and impetuous temperament. In everything he does you can recognize the “anger of Peleus’ son [ie Achilles] who knows not how to yield.”

(Erasmus to Melanchthon, 10 December 1524, in R.A.B. Mynors and Alexander Dalzell, translators; annotated by James M. Estes, Collected Works of Erasmus, Vol. X, Correspondence: Letters 1356-1534 [1523-1524], Univ. of Toronto Press, 1992, 441 ff.)

(46) I am sending to you Erasmus’ bitter letter to me . . . He has written even more bitterly to Stromer.

(Melanchthon to Joachim Camerarius, 22 January 1525, in R.A.B. Mynors and Alexander Dalzell, translators; annotated by James M. Estes, Collected Works of Erasmus, Vol. X, Correspondence: Letters 1356-1534 [1523-1524], Univ. of Toronto Press, 1992, 441)

(47) I did not move a finger’s breadth from the teaching of the Roman Church. . . . You ask me why I did not speak out at once. Because I regarded Luther as a good man, raised up by Providence to correct the depravity of the age. Whence have all these trouble risen? From the audacious and open immorality of the priesthood, from the arrogance of the theologians and the tyranny of the monks. They began the battle by attacking learning. I did not wish to expel the old studies. I wished only to give Greek and Hebrew a place among them which I thought would minister to the glory of Christ. . . . up sprang Luther, and the object thenceforward was to entangle the friends of literature in the Lutheran business so as to destroy both them and him together.

(Erasmus to Albert Pio, 10 October 1525 , in James Anthony Froude, translator and editor, Life and Letters of Erasmus, London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1894, 340-341)

(48) On the one side I had the theologians, who, because of their hatred of the humanities, were doing everything possible to push me into a sect which they themselves believed should be condemned out of hand; on the other side I had the Lutherans, who were working in the same direction through wheedling, trickery, threats, and abuse, though their ultimate aim was different from that of the theologians. Yet in spite of this no one has yet been able to move me one finger’s breadth from membership in the church of Rome.

(Erasmus to Albert Pio, 10 October 1525, in Peter Macardle and Clarence H. Miller, translators, Charles Trinkhaus, editor, Collected Works of Erasmus, Vol. 76: Controversies: De Libero Arbitrio / Hyperaspistes I, Univ. of Toronto Press, 1999, lxxviii)

(49) Luther himself is not so cowardly as to hope, or so wicked as to wish, that you should be silent. I cannot say how foolish and inflated I think his letter to you. He knows well how the wretched glosses with which he has darkened Scripture turn to ice at your touch. They were cold enough already.

(St. Thomas More to Erasmus, 18 December 1525, in James Anthony Froude, translator and editor, Life and Letters of Erasmus, London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1894, 342)

(50) I expect the same or worse from Erasmus as from Duke George. That reptile will feel himself taken by the throat and will not be moved by my moderation. God grant that I be mistaken, but I know the man’s nature; he is an instrument of Satan unless God change him.

(Luther to Nicholas Hausmann, 20 January 1526, in Preserved Smith and Charles Michael Jacobs, translators and editors, Luther’s Correspondence and Other Contemporary Letters, Vol. II: 1521-1530, Philadelphia: The Lutheran Publication Society, 1918, 362-363)

(51) The true Christian must grieve in his heart when he considers how far the morals of those who profess the name of Christ have sunk, how close we have come to rejecting the gospel, how almost nothing remains of faith and charity except the name and title, and how desperate the state to which our religion has been brought . . . All the abusive rhetoric — about the Roman curia, the insufferable tyranny of monks, worldly bishops, and sophistical theologians whose learning left no place for Christ — was received with repeated cheers. The fearless courage of the man [Luther] in attacking those who are venerated like gods was interpreted as proof of a good conscience. . . . The idea was touted that if a few were burned at the stake, that would put an end to the whole trouble. . . . Caught between those who applauded and those who hissed, I guessed the business would end in public disorder. . . . in fact the evils we have witnessed are greater than I feared. . . . five years ago I warned Luther in a private letter that, if he was relying on the inspiration of his own spirit, he should see to it that he brought to so perilous a task a mind free from any taint of corruption. . . . but then volume after volume flowed from his pen, each more violent than the one before. I found these deeply offensive, not just for the arrogance of the man, but for his insatiable love of argument, which descends sometimes into scurrilous abuse. . . . he takes out his insolent pen and attacks kings and men whose only desire is to serve the public good. . . . The man’s lack of moderation is such that I begin to be seriously worried about the spirit that animates him and to congratulate myself for not being enticed into his sect by flattery or driven there by bitterness . . . now we see a general neglect of languages and the humanities, which he has saddled with an intolerable weight of enmity. The ancient writers lie neglected. Scholastic philosophy, which I wished to see reformed, not eliminated, is in decline. Almost all liberal studies are dying. The very name of the gospel is hated by many . . . The liberty we hoped for has not appeared; on the contrary, good men must bear a heavier yoke, and evil men are being allowed a looser rein. One hope still remains. . . . If the impiety of the world deserved to be treated by such men as these and by such a cruel surgeon (for no healing could come from drugs, poultices, and plasters), I hope that those whom God chastised when they rebelled will be comforted by him when they come to their senses. For sometimes he corrects the sins of his people by sending the Philistines . . . or a Nebuchadnezzar and, since he is the all-powerful master of the world, he makes the wickedness of evil men redound to his glory and to the good of the church. So on occasion a dose of poison has turned out to be a cure, and sometimes, when the doctors have given up in despair, the enemy’s sword that caused the wound has provided the remedy. . . . As for the scurrilous attack that Luther made on me recently — and without cause, too, since the argument in my Diatribe was courteous and free from abuse –I shall bear the personal insult lightly, provided the public cause of the Christian faith prospers as we would wish, and the gospel of Christ reigns truly in the hearts of men . . .

(Erasmus to Johann Henckel, 7 March 1526, in Alexander Dalzell, translator; annotated by Charles G. Nauert, Collected Works of Erasmus, Vol. XII, Correspondence: Letters 1658-1801 [1526-1527], Univ. of Toronto Press, 2003, 55 ff.)

(52) . . . that enraged reptile, Erasmus of Rotterdam. How much eloquence will this vainglorious beast exercise in trying to destroy Luther?

(Luther to Georg Spalatin, 27 March 1526, in Preserved Smith and Charles Michael Jacobs, translators and editors, Luther’s Correspondence and Other Contemporary Letters, Vol. II: 1521-1530, Philadelphia: The Lutheran Publication Society, 1918, 365 ff.)

(53) The whole world knows your nature; truly you have so guided your pen that you have written against no one more rabidly, and (what is more detestable) more maliciously than against me. . . . that same admirable ferocity which you formerly used against [Bishop John] Fisher and against Cochlaeus, who challenged you to it and provoked you by their reviling, you now use against my book On the Free Will, which argued politely. How do your scurrilous reproaches and mendacious charges that I am atheist, an Epicurean, a skeptic about Christianity, besides many other things which you say you pass over, help the argument one way or the other? I bear your accusations with tolerable calmness because my conscience does not charge me with one of them. Did I not believe in God, Christianity and revealed religion, I should not wish to live a day longer. If you plead your cause with your customary vehemence but without your furious reviling, you would provoke fewer men to come out against you; more than a third part of your book is taken up with such invective since you give rein to your temper. Your rage itself shows that you have the worst of the argument . . . what does terribly pain me, and all good men, is that your arrogant, insolent, rebellious nature has cast the world into deadly strife, that you have opposed good men and lovers of letters with a set of malignant Pharisees, and that you have armed the wicked and turbulent to rebel; in short, that you so treat the evangelical cause as to confound all things, sacred and profane, together, as if it were your chief aim to prevent the tempest from ever becoming calm, whereas it is my greatest desire that it should. . . . what grieves me is the public calamity: all this incurable confusion which we owe to nothing but to your barren genius, not amenable to the counsels of your best friends but easily turned in any direction by the most foolish swindlers. I know not whom you have saved from the power of darkness; whoever the ingrates are you ought to turn your dagger-pen against them rather than against the men who argue so temperately against you.

(Erasmus to Luther, 11 April 1526, in Preserved Smith and Charles Michael Jacobs, translators and editors, Luther’s Correspondence and Other Contemporary Letters, Vol. II: 1521-1530, Philadelphia: The Lutheran Publication Society, 1918, 368-370)

(54) Have you ever read anything more bitterly written than Erasmus’s Hyperaspistes? He is certainly a viper. . . . I think that in the second part of his work Erasmus has been the more vulgar. He loads me with undeserved reproach, ascribing the more odious part of Luther’s work to me, but I have decided to take no notice of this injustice . . . The matter causes me great anguish of mind. Unless God shall take note of this tumult and preserve us, I fear that we shall not be able to get out of these contentions.

(Melanchthon to Joachim Camerarius, 11 April 1526, in Preserved Smith and Charles Michael Jacobs, translators and editors, Luther’s Correspondence and Other Contemporary Letters, Vol. II: 1521-1530, Philadelphia: The Lutheran Publication Society, 1918, 370-371)

(55) You see the hostility with which Luther attacked me, though provoked by no insults from me. What would he do if he were truly roiled? . . . Can you imagine the abuse Luther would hurl at my head if he were seriously provoked, when, in a treatise written in what he considers a friendly and conciliatory manner, he did not scruple to fire accusation after accusation at me, charging that, like Lucian, I do not believe in the existence of God, that, like Epicurus, I believe that God takes no interest in human affairs, that I mock the Holy Scriptures, and that I am an enemy of the Christian religion? And yet he himself in a letter, a copy of which I am sending you, comes close to demanding my gratitude for showing unwonted and uncharacteristic restraint when he took up his pen against me. I think a good man should be concerned about slander, even if the slander is without foundation. . . . No conceivable charge is so horrible that this crew would be reluctant to approve it. They are highly skilled at making their calumnies seem credible. No one can ever completely clear himself of a serious charge: some trace of suspicion always lingers in the minds of men, and the more serious and shameless the invention, the more readily it is believed. . . . I wrote the Diatribe simply to please the princes and to leave no one in any doubt of my antipathy towards the Lutheran faction. . . . Let me point out the strategies on which the Lutheran faction mainly relies. Sermons are preached to attract people to the cause and hold them there. . . . For the common people the bait is their love of liberty. The printing-press, too, plays no small role. In addition to all this the Lutherans are greatly assisted by the almost universal hatred of bad monks, pleasure-loving priests, and hare-brained theologians (I am not referring to the honest ones among them). Many of the nobility, especially the lower nobility, are inclined to support them, because they covet the church’s wealth. . . . But if we continue to make things worse by barbed tracts, imprisonments, and executions, the painful result, I am afraid, will be total anarchy. . . . We know the sort of books with which the Lutherans are flooding the world; and the stuff that is written in reply by some of our theologians is not much better. What is achieved by this battle of the books except to make the fire spread? It is the same with sermons from both sides: fierce insults are traded by both parties, and the rope of controversy is pulled tighter.

(Erasmus to Johannes Fabri, c. 16 April 1526, in Alexander Dalzell, translator; annotated by Charles G. Nauert, Collected Works of Erasmus, Vol. XII, Correspondence: Letters 1658-1801 [1526-1527], Univ. of Toronto Press, 2003, 141-147)

(56) . . . the viper . . .

(Luther to the Elector John of Saxony, 23 April 1526, in Preserved Smith and Charles Michael Jacobs, translators and editors, Luther’s Correspondence and Other Contemporary Letters, Vol. II: 1521-1530, Philadelphia: The Lutheran Publication Society, 1918, 372)

(57) The angry noises that the Lutherans are making about me show the absolute truth of what I am saying. Among others Hutten, Otto Brunfels, and recently Luther himself have made their opposition clear by publishing savage attacks upon me. Luther replied to my Diatribe in a full-length volume, revealing greater animosity than he has shown towards anyone before; he says that no one has been a greater obstacle than I to the spread of the gospel (for that is the name they give to their heresy) . . .

Whoever is now fighting against Erasmus is fighting for Luther. Our leaders should take care that the glory of crushing that faction redounds to the general good of the church and not to the advantage of those who serve their own ends. We shall help the church only if we correct the faults that are responsible for the present turmoil. . . .

In all my many writings it is impossible to point to a single doctrine that is condemned by the church . . .

(Erasmus to Mercurino Gattinara, 29 April 1526, in Alexander Dalzell, translator; annotated by Charles G. Nauert, Collected Works of Erasmus, Vol. XII, Correspondence: Letters 1658-1801 [1526-1527], Univ. of Toronto Press, 2003, 176-180)

(58) Luther in his book has adopted such a tone that he has left no room for friendship between us; in spite of this he is under the impression that he has kept a firm grip on his temper.

(Erasmus to Willibald Pirckheimer, 6 June 1526, in Alexander Dalzell, translator; annotated by Charles G. Nauert, Collected Works of Erasmus, Vol. XII, Correspondence: Letters 1658-1801 [1526-1527], Univ. of Toronto Press, 2003, 219 ff.)

(59) What torments me, and any decent person with me, is that because of that arrogant, insolent, seditious temperament of yours you throw the whole world into deadly hostile camps; you make good men and lovers of the humanities vulnerable to certain raving Pharisees; you arm wicked men and those eager for revolt; in short, you treat the cause of the gospel in such a way as to reduce everything, holy or unholy, to utter confusion, as if you deliberately intended that this storm should never reach a pleasant outcome, which is the goal at which I have always aimed. . . . It is the public calamity that torments me and the total and inextricable confusion which derives solely from your uncontrollable personality.

(Erasmus to Luther, March 1527, in Peter Macardle and Clarence H. Miller, translators, Charles Trinkhaus, editor, Collected Works of Erasmus, Vol. 76: Controversies: De Libero Arbitrio / Hyperaspistes I, Univ. of Toronto Press, 1999, lxxix)

(60) But what weapons can you use to dispossess someone who will not accept anything except Holy Scripture interpreted according to his own rules?

(Erasmus to St. Thomas More, 30 March 1527, in Peter Macardle and Clarence H. Miller, translators, Charles Trinkhaus, editor, Collected Works of Erasmus, Vol. 76: Controversies: De Libero Arbitrio / Hyperaspistes I, Univ. of Toronto Press, 1999, lxxx)

(61) Luther amazes me. If the spirit which is in him be an evil one, no more fatal monster was ever born. If it be a good spirit, much of the fruit of the Gospel is wanting in him. If a mixed one, how can two spirits so strong exist in the same person?

(Erasmus to Duke George of Saxony, 2 September 1527, in James Anthony Froude, translator and editor, Life and Letters of Erasmus, London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1894, 352)

(62) At last you paint that Erasmus of yours in his true colors, and recognize him as a viper with deadly stings, though you used formerly to speak of him in many terms of praise. I am glad that the reading of this one book, the Hyperaspistes, has brought you so far and changed your opinion of him.

(Luther to Justus Jonas, 19 October 1527, in Preserved Smith and Charles Michael Jacobs, translators and editors, Luther’s Correspondence and Other Contemporary Letters, Vol. II: 1521-1530, Philadelphia: The Lutheran Publication Society, 1918, 416 ff.)

(63) I believe Zwingli is worthy of holy hatred, so insolently and unworthily does he deal with the holy Word of God. The Hyperaspistes I have not yet read, and why should I read it . . . ?

(Luther to Melanchthon, 27 October 1527, in Preserved Smith and Charles Michael Jacobs, translators and editors, Luther’s Correspondence and Other Contemporary Letters, Vol. II: 1521-1530, Philadelphia: The Lutheran Publication Society, 1918, 418-419)

(64) I have not yet read Erasmus or the sacramentarians except about three-quarters of Zwingli’s book. Judases as they are . . . Would that Erasmus and the sacramentarians might feel the anguish of my heart for a quarter of an hour; I can safely say that they would be converted and saved thereby . . .

(Luther to Justus Jonas, 11? November 1527, in Preserved Smith and Charles Michael Jacobs, translators and editors, Luther’s Correspondence and Other Contemporary Letters, Vol. II: 1521-1530, Philadelphia: The Lutheran Publication Society, 1918, 420 ff.)

(65) Where Lutheranism reigns, learning dies. . . . They seek only two things: good pay and a wife. The gospel offers them the rest — that is, the power of living as they please.

(Erasmus to Willibald Pirckheimer, about 21 February 1529, in Preserved Smith and Charles Michael Jacobs, translators and editors, Luther’s Correspondence and Other Contemporary Letters, Vol. II: 1521-1530, Philadelphia: The Lutheran Publication Society, 1918, 469)

(66) It is like Erasmus thus to persecute the Lutheran name when he cannot live in safety except under its protection . . . If the Lutherans had hated him as he hates them, he would, indeed, be in peril of his life at Basle. But Christ will judge this atheist and Epicurean Lucian.

(Luther to Wenzel Link, 7 March 1529, in Preserved Smith and Charles Michael Jacobs, translators and editors, Luther’s Correspondence and Other Contemporary Letters, Vol. II: 1521-1530, Philadelphia: The Lutheran Publication Society, 1918, 469-470)

(67) . . . although I find it annoying to be praised in Luther’s company, it is more distressing by far to be accused along with him, the accusation being, in effect, that I paved the way for the attack he launched on the church. . . .

. . . as I reread my works . . . I find no teaching that agrees with the condemned positions of Luther, but instead countless teachings that explicitly disagree with his. . . . Of so many slanderers there has not yet been one who could prove agreement on even a single doctrinal teaching. . . . they are absolutely shameless liars who noise it about that what Luther and I write differs not in substance but only in style. . . .

I was the first one of all to sniff out the fact that the fellow’s spirit had been corrupted by ambition. Since I thought he could still be cured, I warned him about this, but even then only when challenged by his letters. . . . I never approved of Luther’s performance. . . .

So the charge that I condemn nothing in Luther except his rebellion is plainly false. . . .

. . . in a great many writings, I assign to the Roman pontiff primacy over the entire church . . .

(Erasmus to Albert Pio [Responsio], March 1529 , in Daniel J. Sheerin, translator and editor, and Nelson H. Minnich, editor and annotation, Collected Works of Erasmus, Vol. 84, Controversies: Albert Pio, Univ. of Toronto Press, 2004, 10, 21-23, 34, 40)

(68) God knows what the end will be. Like enough He is punishing us for our sins. . . . But never will I be tempted or exasperated into deserting the true communion. . . . The ill-will of some wretched fellow-creature shall not tempt me to lay hands on the mother who washed me at the font, fed me with the word of God, and quickened me with the sacraments. I will not lose my immortal soul to avenge a worldly wrong. . . . I understand now how Arius and Tertullian and Wickliff were driven into schism by malicious clergy and wicked monks. I will not forsake the Church myself, I would forfeit life and reputation sooner; but how unprovoked was the conspiracy to ruin me! My crime was my effort to promote learning. That was the whole of it. . . . There may be arguments about the Real Presence, but I will never believe that Christ would have allowed His Church to remain so long in such an error (if error it be) as to worship a wafer for God. The Lutheran notion that any Christian may consecrate or ordain I think pure insanity. But if monks fancy that by screaming and shrieking they can recover their old tyranny, or that popes and prelates can put the fire out with a high hand, they are greatly mistaken. It may be smothered for a moment, but surely it will break out again. A disease can only be cured by removing the causes of it. We need not give up our belief in the Church because men are wicked.

(Erasmus to Louis Berus, 1 April 1529, in James Anthony Froude, translator and editor, Life and Letters of Erasmus, London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1894, 365-366)

(69) He does not publish a single book without showing the impotence of his mind, or, rather, the pain of the wounds he has received. But I despise him, nor shall I honor the fellow by arguing with him any more . . . I shall mention Erasmus only as one speaks of a third person, condemning rather than refuting his ideas. He is a light-minded man, scoffing at all religion, after the fashion of his own dear Lucian does, and never writes seriously unless he is setting down calumnies and slanders.

(Luther to James Montanus, 28 May 1529, in Preserved Smith and Charles Michael Jacobs, translators and editors, Luther’s Correspondence and Other Contemporary Letters, Vol. II: 1521-1530, Philadelphia: The Lutheran Publication Society, 1918, 481-482)

(70) I will not forsake the one Church . . . Theologians, schoolmen, and monks fancy that in what they are doing they strengthen the Church. They are mistaken. Fire is not quenched by fire. The tyranny of the Court of Rome and a set of scandalous friars set the pile alight, and they are pouring on oil to put it out. . . . The clergy are thinking only of revenge, and not the least of amending their lives.

(Erasmus to Cuthbert Tunstall, 31 January 1530, in James Anthony Froude, translator and editor, Life and Letters of Erasmus, London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1894, 384)

(71) Your judgment of Erasmus I much admire: wherein you say plainly, that he has no other basis wherein to build his doctrine but the favour of men; and attribute to him, moreover, ignorance and malice. And if you could but convey this judgment of yours with conviction to the minds of men in general, you would in truth, like another stripling David, by this one blow, lay our boasting Goliath prostrate, and at the same time, eradicate the whole of his sect. For what is more vain, more fallacious, in all things, than the applause of men, especially in things spiritual! For, as the Psalms testify, “There is no help in them:” again, “All men are liars.” I at one time attributed to him a singular kind of inconsistency and vain-talking, for he seemed to treat on sacred and serious things with the greatest unconcern; and on the contrary, to pursue baubles, vanities, and things laughable and ridiculous with the utmost avidity; though an old man, and a theologian; and that, in an age, the most industrious and laborious. So that I really thought, that what I had heard many men of wisdom and gravity say, was true — that Erasmus was actually mad. When I first wrote against his Diatribe, and was compelled to weigh his words, (as John says “try the Spirits,”) being disgusted at his inconsiderateness in a subject of so much importance; in order that I might rouse up the cold and doltish disputer, I goaded him as if in a snoring sleep; calling him a disciple, at one time, of Epicurus, at another, of Lucian, and then again, declaring him to be of the opinion of the sceptics; supposing, that by these means he might, perhaps, be roused up to enter upon the subject with more feeling. But all was in vain. I only irritated the viper, . . . But the truth is, he hates all the doctrines together. Nay, there can be no doubt in the mind of a true believer, who has the Spirit in his nostrils, that his mind is alienated from, and utterly hates all religion together; and especially, the religion of Christ. Many proofs of this are scattered here and there . . . He published lately, among his other works, his Catechism, a production evidently of Satanic subtlety. For, with a purpose full of craft, he designs to take children and youths at the outset, and to infect them with his poisons, that they might not afterwards be eradicated from them; just as he himself, in Italy and at Rome, so sucked in his doctrines of sorcerers and of devils that now all remedy is too late . . . he does nothing but set before them those heresies and offences of opinions, by which the Church has been troubled from the beginning. So that in fact, he would make it appear, that there has been nothing certain in the Christian religion . . . I began to suspect him of being a plain Democritus or Epicurus, and a crafty derider of Christ: for he everywhere intimates to his fellow Epicureans, his hatred against Christ: though he does it in words so figurative and insidious, . . . This observation fixes in me a determination (let others do as they please) not to believe Erasmus, even if he should openly confess in plain words, — that Christ is God. But I would address to him that sophistical saying of Chrysippus, ‘If you lie, you lie even when you speak the truth.’ . . . Our king of ambiguity, however, sits upon his ambiguous throne in security, and destroys us stupid Christians with a double destruction. First, it is his will, and it is a great pleasure to him, to offend us by his ambiguous words: and indeed he would not like it, if we stupid blocks were not offended. And next, when he sees that we are offended, and have run against his insidious figures of speech, and begin to exclaim against him, he then begins to triumph and rejoice that the desired prey has been caught in his snares. For now, having found an opportunity of displaying his rhetoric, he rushes upon us with all his powers and all his noise, tearing us, flogging us, crucifying us, and sending us farther than hell itself; saying, that we have understood his words calumniously, virulently, satanically; (using the worst terms he can find;) whereas, he never meant them to be so understood.

(Luther to Nikolaus von Amsdorf, 11 March? 1534, available online)


(Erasmus and Luther letters only)

Letters of Erasmus

Compliments of Luther

Bold and courageous, 4, 51
Cordial, 11
Fathers, commendable emphasis on, 4, 17
Followers not worthy of him, 45
Good, L’s potential for much, 4, 15, 17, 18, 21, 23, 39, 47, 61, 67
Life and reputation highly regarded (“good man”), 8, 9, 10, 47
Morals, condemnation of Catholic corruption commendable, 34, 45, 47, 51
“Necessary evil” in order to reform corrupt morals, 40, 44
Right in many ways, 4, 9
Scriptural exegete, good, 17

Negative Criticisms of Luther

Ambitious, overly, 10, 67
Arrogant, 10, 51, 53, 59
Bishops, attacks on, 10
Courtesy, lack of, 10
Dogmatic and unable to be disagreed with, 9, 10, 39
Hatred, tendency to, 10
Humanism and learning: Luther’s injury to, 13, 21, 25, 27, 51, 59, 65
Intentions and motives somewhat questionable, 45
Outspoken and needlessly, recklessly provocative and immoderate, 4, 9, 10, 12, 13, 15, 17, 19, 20, 21, 23, 40, 45, 51, 67
Rebellious; destroyer of tradition, schismatic, 10, 15, 17, 21, 27, 45, 51, 53, 59, 67
Satan leading astray in some respects, 39, 51, 61
Tempestuous and fiery, angry, maliciousness, slanderous, 10, 45, 51, 53, 55, 57, 58
“Uncontrollable personality”, 59

Catholic Churchmen (many) / Erasmus’ Catholic Critics

Humanistic learning and languages, aversion or opposition to, 8, 15, 21, 47, 48, 68
Persecution & arguments against L & Protestantism unjust, stupid, ineffective (tolerance), 11, 12, 13, 15, 16, 18, 19, 21, 22, 23, 33, 45, 47, 51, 55, 57, 68, 70
Persecution and hatred of E, 16, 24, 28, 44, 48, 51, 67, 68

Protestant movement, descriptions of the whole and of individuals

Avarice and greed, 34, 65
“Bitterness”, 22
Calumnious, 55
Carnality, 34
“Contagion”, 229
Covetousness and plunder, 21, 34, 55
“Crazy rascals”, 44
“Deceitful”, 44
Drinking, 34
“Evil”, 22, 29, 32
“Faction”, 55
Factionalism and sectarianism, 27, 28, 40, 44
“Foul-mouthed”, 44
Gambling, 34
“Gospel”: false identification with, 40, 41, 44, 45, 51, 57, 59, 65
“Headstrong”, 44
“Heresy”, 57
Humanistic learning and languages, aversion and opposition to, 25, 27, 45, 51, 59, 65
Iconoclasm, 45
“Impudent”, 44
“Liars”, 44
Liberty, false notions of, 27, 34, 41, 51, 55, 65
Monks and Priests forsaking vows and getting married, 45, 65
“Monster” (the whole movement), 19
“Monsters”, 45
“No good to anyone”, 44
“Nuisance to all”, 44
Oppressive, 27
Rebelliousness, 27, 28, 44, 45, 59
“Reckless conduct”, 45
“Scandalmongers”, 44
Sexual immorality, 34
“Shameless and intractable”, 40
Sinfulness, 41, 65
“Stirring up trouble”, 45
“Subversive”, 44
“Tragedy”, 45
“Wicked men”, 59
“Wretches”, 44

* * *

Anabaptists, 36
Church, Catholic: will never leave or split from (eternal loyalty), 12, 24, 48, 68, 70
Conscience and conviction (not weakness), 39
Gospel, love of, 39, 45, 51, 59
Luther: E not associated with (and oppose) his condemned or heretical doctrines or overall cause, 11, 12, 17, 18, 21, 24, 28, 30, 40, 44, 45, 48, 55, 57, 67
Luther’s books: opposed publication of, 12, 17
Orthodoxy and obedience to Catholic Church, 12, 47, 57, 67, 68
Papacy, strong advocate of traditional Catholic notion of, 12, 16, 67
Providence, God’s, in the midst of the turmoil, 22, 51, 68
Persecution and false accusations, from Protestants, 12, 24, 28, 44, 51, 57
Reformer, of Catholic Church and Catholic morals (corruptions of the time), 8, 12, 13, 15, 16, 21, 23, 24, 40, 44, 45, 47, 51, 55, 57, 68, 70
Sedition, rebellion, revolt, schism, conflict, violence: detestation of, 12, 14, 16, 17, 21, 24, 30, 32, 34, 36, 44, 45, 51, 68
Sola Scriptura, 60

Letters of Luther

Compliments of Erasmus

Appreciation of agreements & taking notice of L’s writings, 6
Clever writer, 2
Corruption in the Church, criticism of, 2
Delightful writer, 2
Funny writer, 2
Ingenious, 3
Learned (surpassing St. Jerome), 3
Letters, great man of, 3, 35, 38
Monks & priests, criticism of, 1
Reformer of morals, 35
Religion: E doesn’t wish to harm, 38
Spirit, “wonderful” and enriching, 6

Negative Criticisms and Insults of Erasmus

Affection for, less and less, 1
Ambiguity, deliberate, 71
Arrogant know-it-all, 71
“Atheist”, 66

“Boasting Goliath”, 71
Christ, denies divinity of, 71
Christ, knows little of, 1, 3, 26, 27
Christianity and spirituality, ignorance and hatred of, 31, 35, 37, 71
Civility, overemphasis on, 26
Cold, 71
Conversion, need of, 64
Craftiness, 71
Damned (strongly implied), 66, 71
“Democritus”, 71
“Derider of Christ”, 71
Despised by L, 69
“Doltish”, 71
Eloquence and rhetoric: more concern for than truth, 31, 52, 71
Enemy of L (“destroy” L), 52
“Epicurean”, 66, 71
Exegete, scriptural, inadequate, 35
Grace, knows little of, 1, 26
Hates Lutherans, 66
“Hatred against Christ”, 71
Heretic, 71
Humanism and learning emphasized more than God, 1, 31, 37
Hypocritical, 38
Ignorant (not worth arguing with), 69, 71
Immoderate, 50
Impious, 38
Inconsiderate, 71
Indifference as to his opinions, 26
Insincere (liar), 71
“Instrument of Satan”, 50
“Judas”, 64
Kindness, overemphasis on, 26
“Light-minded”, 69
“Lucian”, 66, 69, 71
Malicious, 71
Mad (out of his mind), 71
Men, seeks approval of, over God, 71
Mind, impotent, 69
Pitied, 37
Peace, overly concerned with, 26
“Plots of Satan” (comparison to E), 31
Predestination, ignorance of, 31
“Reptile”, 50, 52
Ridiculous, 71
“Satanic subtlety”, 71
Sense, lack of, 38
Sensitive, overly, 69
Seriousness, lacks, 69
Skeptic and scoffer against religion, 38, 69, 71
Slanderer, 66, 69
Sly, 35
Unsaved, 64
“Vainglorious beast”, 52
Vanity, 71
“Viper”, 56, 62, 71
Weakness; lack of courage and resolve, 38

* * *

Erasmus urged to not publish against L, 38
Erasmus’ Hyperaspistes not read by L, 63, 64
Zwingli should be hated, 63


March 21, 2016


Desiderius Erasmus (1466/1469-1536); portrait (1523) by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/1498-1543) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

* * * * *

This is a series of papers of mine, documenting the dispute between Martin Luther and Erasmus: the greatest scholar in Europe during Luther’s time. It documents their correspondence, Luther’s vitriolic personal attacks against Erasmus, and Erasmus’ magnificent responses in his Hyperaspistes (1526). For those who think that Luther easily triumphed over every Catholic opponent, this will certainly be enlightening and educational reading. The material is drawn from blog posts of mine from February 2009.

* * * * *

“Luther Meets His Match”
January 10, 2019

This is an installment of a series of replies (see the Introduction and Master List) to much of Book IV (Of the Holy Catholic Church) of Institutes of the Christian Religion, by early Protestant leader John Calvin (1509-1564). I utilize the public domain translation of Henry Beveridge, dated 1845, from the 1559 edition in Latin; available online. Calvin’s words will be in blue. All biblical citations (in my portions) will be from RSV unless otherwise noted.

Related reading from yours truly:

Biblical Catholic Answers for John Calvin (2010 book: 388 pages)

A Biblical Critique of Calvinism (2012 book: 178 pages)

Biblical Catholic Salvation: “Faith Working Through Love” (2010 book: 187 pages; includes biblical critiques of all five points of “TULIP”)


IV, 7:10-11


Book IV


10. Proof from history that the Roman had no jurisdiction over other churches.


But (to end the question at once)Calvin rather prematurely (and, I think, amusingly) proclaims victory before the reader even sees the evidence that he will present. Wishing something to be true does not make it true.

the kind of jurisdiction which belonged to the Roman Bishop one narrative will make manifest. Donatus of Casa Nigra had accused Cecilianus the Bishop of Carthage. Cecilianus was condemned without a hearing: for, having ascertained that the bishops had entered into a conspiracy against him, he refused to appear. The case was brought before the Emperor Constantine. who, wishing the matter to be ended by an ecclesiastical decision; gave the cognisance of it to Melciades, the Roman Bishop, appointing as his colleagues some bishops from Italy, France, and Spain. If it formed part of the ordinary jurisdiction of the Roman See to hear appeals in ecclesiastical causes, why did he allow others to be conjoined with him at the Emperor’s discretion? 

Why is cooperation with other bishops ruled out by virtue of having a supremacy? It is not. In fact, this is exactly what the facts of the matter show:

In 313 the Donatists came to Constantine with a request to nominate bishops from Gaul as judges in the controversy of the African episcopate regarding the consecration in Carthage of the two bishops, Cæcilian and Majorinus. Constantinewrote about this to Miltiades, and also to Marcus, requesting the pope with three bishops from Gaul to give a hearing in Rome, to Cæcilian and his opponent, and to decide the case. On 2 October, 313, there assembled in the Lateran Palace, under the presidency of Miltiades, a synod of eighteen bishops from Gaul and Italy, which, after thoroughly considering the Donatist controversy for three days, decided in favor of Cæcilian, whose election and consecration as Bishop of Carthage was declared to be legitimate. (Catholic Encyclopedia“Pope St. Miltiades”)

nay, why does he undertake to decide more from the command of the Emperor than his own office? But let us hear what afterwards happened (see August. Ep. 162, et alibi). Cecilianus prevails. Donatus of Casa Nigra is thrown in his calumnious action and appeals. Constantine devolves the decision of the appeal on the Bishop of Arles, who sits as judge, to give sentence after the Roman Pontiff. If the Roman See has supreme power not subject to appeal, why does Melciades allow himself to be so greatly insulted as to have the Bishop of Arles preferred to him? And who is the Emperor that does this? Constantine, who they boast not only made it his constant study, but employed all the resources of the empire to enlarge the dignity of that see. We see, therefore, how far in every way the Roman Pontiff was from that supreme dominion, which he asserts to have been given him by Christ over all churches, and which he falsely alleges that he possessed in all ages, with the consent of the whole world.

Who is to say that Constantine was not possibly overreaching his bounds? Caesaropapism was a frequent tendency of the Byzantine Emperors. Again, there is more than one way to view anything. Calvin sees some of the actions of Constantine and concludes that they suggest a lack of supremacy of the bishop of Rome. But they could just as easily suggest that the emperor is not properly informed as to the proper government of the Church. Yet the actual historical evidence indicates that the emperor was aware of the preeminence of the pope, even in this council, for he wrote to the pope:

[Y]our reverence will decide how the aforesaid case may be most carefully examined and justly determined . . . (Arnold Hugh Martin Jones, Constantine and the Conversion of Europe, University of Toronto Press, p. 94)

Note that the decision was finally made by the pope, not the collection of bishops. Professor Jones casually notes about this council: “to preside over them he appointed Miltiades, bishop of Rome” (p. 94). And he observes:

The court . . . consisted not only of the four bishops of Rome, Cologne, Autun and Arles, whom Constantine had nominated, but of fifteen others from various Italian sees. The Pope had insisted that the proposed imperial commission of enquiry be transformed into a church council. (Ibid., p. 95)

Technically, since this was not an ecumenical council, other local councils dealing with the same matter are not unusual, let alone unthinkable. If the pope had ratified the decisions of an ecumenical council, there would be no appeal. So Calvin’s argument is not nearly sufficient to bring down papal supremacy, as he thinks it is.

Though the famous Emperor Constantine wrongly seems to have regarded the council of Rome as a body of imperial commissioners, he still accepted its conclusions and scolded the Donatists for spurning it (see Jones, p. 96). For some reason (perhaps again exhibiting an inadequate understanding of Catholic ecclesiology) he allowed their appeal to the Council of Arles. And the Donatists were appealing to the secular ruler rather than to the Church. In any event, the council of Arles agreed (unanimously) all down the line with the Roman council, and in no sense superseded or judged it. The Donatists were again condemned.

Most telling of all, however, and a fatal blow to Calvin’s use of this incident for his “anti-Roman” polemic, is the fact that Constantine also did not accept the verdict of Arles as (legally) conclusive, and agreed to hear yet another appeal of the Donatists, himself:

Constantine once again gave in to the Donatist demands and agreed to hear their case personally. Dismissing the bishops from Arles, he ordered both Caecilian and his accusers to his court, where they attended his pleasure for the better part of a year. (Constantine and the Bishops, Harold Allen Drake, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000, p. 220)

In other words, Constantine went beyond, not only papal supremacy, but even conciliarism, such as is believed by the Orthodox: straight to a notion of a caesaropapist State-Church, as seen in Lutheranism, where princes replaced bishops. Thus it proves too much to appeal to his example. Calvin’s argument collapses, once we accept these additional relevant facts (which he conveniently omits from consideration).

If we follow what Constantine did, then it would be an argument for no Church government whatever (if legitimate church councils cannot even decide matters of heresy with finality). It would defeat Calvin’s own ecclesiology as well as (supposedly) the Catholic position. Constantine was outside of his proper jurisdiction. But such is the danger of too much political power, ultimately unchecked by anyone else.

11. The decretal epistles of no avail in support of this usurped jurisdiction.

I know how many epistles there are, how many rescripts and edicts in which there is nothing which the pontiffs do not ascribe and confidently arrogate to themselves. But all men of the least intellect and learning know, that the greater part of them are in themselves so absurd, that it is easy at the first sight to detect the forge from which they have come. Does any man of sense and soberness think that Anacletus is the author of that famous interpretation which is given in Gratian, under the name of Anacletus—viz. that Cephas is head? (Dist. 22, cap. Sacrosancta.) Numerous follies of the same kind which Gratian has heaped together without judgment, the Romanists of the present day employ against us in defence of their see. The smoke, by which, in the former days of ignorance, they imposed upon the ignorant, they would still vend in the present light. I am unwilling to take much trouble in refuting things which, by their extreme absurdity, plainly refute themselves. 

Catholics and Protestants and secular scholars alike all now agree that the notorious “false decretals” were forgeries. The Catholic case for the papacy rests on much, much more than this, and indeed, Catholics realized the falsity of texts before Calvin and Luther were ever born:

The Middle Ages were deceived by this huge forgery, but during the Renaissance men of learning and the canonists generally began to recognize the fraud. Two cardinals, John of Torquemada (1468) and Nicholas of Cusa (1464), declared the earlier documents to be forgeries, especially those purporting to be by Clement and Anacletus. Then suspicion began to grow. Erasmus (died 1536) and canonists who had joined the Reformation, such as Charles du Moulin (died 1568), or Catholic canonists like Antoine le Conte (died 1586), and after them the Centuriators of Magdeburg, in 1559, put the question squarely before the learned world. . . . In 1628 the Protestant Blondel published his decisive study, “Pseudo-Isidorus et Turrianus vapulantes”. Since then the apocryphal nature of the decretals of Isidore has been an established historical fact. The last of the false decretals that had escaped the keen criticism of Blondel were pointed out by two Catholic priests, the brothers Ballerini, in the eighteenth century. (Catholic Encyclopedia: “False Decretals”)

I admit the existence of genuine epistles by ancient Pontiffs, in which they pronounce magnificent eulogiums on the extent of their see. Such are some of the epistles of Leo.

Good. At least Calvin is aware of this, and acknowledges it.

For as he possessed learning and eloquence, so he was excessively desirous of glory and dominion; but the true question is, whether or not, when he thus extolled himself, the churches gave credit to his testimony? 

Most did; some did not, as we would expect, because the presence of a truth or a fact does not automatically cause all men to accept it.

It appears that many were offended with his ambition, and also resisted his cupidity. He in one place appoints the Bishop of Thessalonica his vicar throughout Greece and other neighbouring regions (Leo, Ep. 85), and elsewhere gives the same office to the Bishop of Arles or some other throughout France (Ep. 83). In like manner, he appointed Hormisdas, Bishop of Hispala, his vicar throughout Spain, but he uniformly makes this reservation, that in giving such commissions, the ancient privileges of the Metropolitans were to remain safe and entire. These appointments, therefore, were made on the condition, that no bishop should be impeded in his ordinary jurisdiction, no Metropolitan in taking cognisance of appeals, no provincial council in constituting churches. But what else was this than to decline all jurisdiction, and to interpose for the purpose of settling discord only, in so far as the law and nature of ecclesiastical communion admit?

Apples and oranges . . . the ordinary jurisdiction of bishops in their own domain does not annihilate the universal jurisdiction of the pope. There is also a sense of “delegated authority.” Hence, Leo the Great wrote to Anastasius, Bishop of Thessalonica:

If with true reasoning you perceived all that has been committed to you, brother, by the blessed apostle Peter’s authority, and what has also been entrusted to you by our favour, and would weigh it fairly, we should be able greatly to rejoice at your zealous discharge of the responsibility imposed on you.

Seeing that, as my predecessors acted towards yours, so too I, following their example, have delegated my authority to you, beloved: so that you, imitating our gentleness, might assist us in the care which we owe primarily to all the churches by Divine institution, and might to a certain extent make up for our personal presence in visiting those provinces which are far off from us: for it would be easy for you by regular and well-timed inspection to tell what and in what cases you could either, by your own influence, settle or reserve for our judgment. For as it was free for you to suspend the more important matters and the harder issues while you awaited our opinion, there was no reason nor necessity for you to go out of your way to decide what was beyond your powers. . . .

Therefore according to the canons of the holy Fathers, which are framed by the spirit of God and hollowed by the whole world’s reverence, we decree that the metropolitan bishops of each province over which your care, brother, extends by our delegacy, shall keep untouched the rights of their position which have been handed down to them from olden times: but on condition that they do not depart from the existing regulations by any carelessness or arrogance. . . .

Concerning councils of bishops we give no other instructions than those laid down for the Church’s health by the holy Fathers: to wit that two meetings should be held a year, in which judgment should be passed upon all the complaints which are wont to arise between the various ranks of the Church. But if perchance among the rulers themselves a cause arise (which God forbid) concerning one of the greater sins, such as cannot be decided by a provincial trial, the metropolitan shall take care to inform you, brother, concerning the nature of the whole matter, and if, after both parties have come before you, the thing be not set at rest even by your judgment, whatever it be, let it be transferred to our jurisdiction. (Letter XIV)

Thus it is yet another instance of the typically Protestant and Calvinist “either/or” mentality. Calvin sees local jurisdiction of bishops and illogically assumes that it is some sort of disproof of universal papal jurisdiction. It is not (neither logically nor historically). But apparently Calvin thinks that if he repeats a falsehood enough times, it will become true.


(originally 6-25-09)

Photo credit: Historical mixed media figure of John Calvin produced by artist/historian George S. Stuart and photographed by Peter d’Aprix: from the George S. Stuart Gallery of Historical Figures archive [Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license]


December 9, 2018


The Protestant Revolution, er (sorry; let me be PC: “Reformation”) started from Luther adopting a viewpoint of irrational, anti-traditional dissent against many aspects of received Catholic tradition (in large part, not totally, as I have carefully noted). Luther had, alas, departed from at least 50 Catholic teachings and longtime practices by 1520, even before he was excommunicated.

One would think that such massive, radical departure from received Catholic precedent and tradition would have a solid rationale (to put it mildly), but it is really as simple as Luther claiming that he is right, because God told him so, and is with him in a special way, and Catholic tradition (i.e., where he dissents from it) is wrong. The Bible is plain, according to Luther’s take.

Other Protestants who disagree with him (Zwingli, Anabaptists et al) are wrong and are going to hell because they don’t see what Luther plainly sees (and Luther favored the killing of Anabaptists, too). I’ve documented the facts of these matters a hundred times in papers listed on my Luther web page and need not do so presently.

The same thing applies, of course, to John Calvin as well, and to either if another Protestant self-proclaimed, self-anointed leader disagreed with them (including with each other). How does one decide who is right, and what is true doctrine? By consistent Protestant rules of authority, there is no way to decide. The individual simply chooses one over the other. This is the central dilemma and difficulty of Protestant dogma or orthodoxy. No one has ever solved it, and no one has ever given me a cogent reply to this challenge in my 28 years of being a Catholic apologist.

I want to reiterate the basic dilemma that faces Protestants who wish to adopt sola Scriptura in any form: whether the shallow extreme Bible Only view that eschews all non-biblical elements altogether, or the sophisticated, nuanced version adhered to by Reformed scholars and defenders such as Keith Mathison.

All alike have a fundamental problem (only to different degrees): how to resolve the differences of opinion that arise precisely because the binding authority of an infallible Church is no longer present to check departures from “orthodoxy”; however defined.

I wonder: who gave Luther the authority to proclaim his dogmas when they contradicted existing Catholic dogmas? It’s an excellent question. What would Luther himself say about that? Well, he says exactly what folks today say: he appeals to God. He’s God’s man; God’s man of the hour; God’s pseudo-prophet or oracle. It’s the oldest trick in the book, for who can disagree with God??!! In just his reply to Henry VIII in 1522, seething with rage, fresh from his excommunication, he made the following astonishing claims:

For I am certain that it is from heaven that I have my teachings; . . .

For my teaching is in no particular contradictory, nor can be contradictory, because it is Christ’s.

I do not ask them to believe me; but to believe the clear word of God.

But I against the sayings of the Fathers, of men, of angels, of devils place not ancient usage, not multitudes of men, but the word of the one Eternal Majesty, the Gospel, which they are forced to approve, . . .

Catholics who dared disagree with Prophet Luther, Oracle of God, would, of course, end up in hell:

They will have a double affliction, the torment of their present hatred, and that which it is earning for them,–the eternal torment of Gehenna.

Luther responded the same way to Erasmus, the greatest scholar of the 16th century, when he dared to disagree on the matter of free will (a thing that even Philip Melanchthon: Luther’s best friend and successor, believed):

Assuredly, any Jew or Heathen, who had no knowledge at all of Christ, would find it easy enough to draw out such a pattern of faith as yours. . . . Your whole air is Lucian, . . .

. . . your words sound as though, like Epicurus, you accounted the word of God and a future state to be mere fables . . .

Erasmus of Rotterdam is the vilest miscreant that ever disgraced the earth . . . He is a very Caiaphas.

Erasmus was poisoned at Rome and at Venice with epicurean doctrines. He extols the Arians more highly than the Papists . . . he died like an epicurean, without any one comfort of God.

I hold Erasmus of Rotterdam to be Christ’s most bitter enemy. . . . He wrote a book against me, called Hyperaspistes, wherein he proposed to defend his work on free-will, against which I wrote my De servo Arbitrio, which has never yet been confuted, nor will it ever be by Erasmus, for I am certain that what I wrote on the matter is the unchangeable truth of God.

Erasmus is the enemy to true religion, the open adversary of Christ, the complete and faithful picture and image of Epicurus and of Lucian.

Erasmus is bad through and through, as is evident in all his books . . . To him, ‘Father, Son and Holy Ghost’ is a ridiculous thing. . . .

I wonder that a man can fall so far from the knowledge of God as Erasmus has fallen. He is as certain that there is no God and no eternal life, as I am certain that I see.

He has injured the Gospel as much as he has advanced the science of grammar. He has been a shameless fellow. Zwingli was led astray by him . . . He died without the cross and without light. . . .

Fellow Protestant “reformer” Zwingli and other non-Lutheran Protestant leaders fared no better than poor Erasmus. In his work, Brief Confession Concerning the Holy Sacrament, written in September 1544, Luther calls Zwingli, Karlstadt, Oecolampadius, and Caspar Schwenkfeld (on whose name Luther does a play on words throughout his tract, making it mean “Stinkfield”) -– and by implication those who believe as they do — “fanatics and enemies of the sacrament” (Luther’s Works, 39, 287), men who are guilty of “blasphemies and deceitful heresy” (39, 288), “loathsome fanatics” (39, 291), “murderers of souls” (39, 296), who “possess a bedeviled, thoroughly bedeviled, hyper-bedeviled heart and lying tongue” (39, 296), and who “have incurred their penalty and are committing ‘sin which is mortal’,” (39, 296), “blasphemers and enemies of Christ” (39, 302), and “God’s and our condemned enemies” (39, 316).

He described Zwingli as a “full-blown heathen” (39, 290), and wrote: “I am certain that Zwingli, as his last book testifies, died in a great many sins and in blasphemy of God” (39, 302-303)

With Calvin it was exactly the same. Though not as “vociferous” as Luther, and less obviously brazen, he, too, thought his authority came straight from God (so that no man could disagree with him), and his own (subjective) conscience. For example:

Though denounced as a deserter of the Church, and threatened, I was in no respect deterred, or induced to proceed less firmly and boldly in opposing those who, in the character of pastors, wasted thy Church with a more than impious tyranny. My conscience told me how strong the zeal was with which I burned for the unity of thy Church, provided thy truth were made the bond of concord. As the commotions which followed were not excited by me, so there is no ground for imputing them to me. (A Reformation Debate: Sadoleto’s Letter to the Genevans and Calvin’s Reply, edited by John C. Olin, New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1966, 86)

The dirty, rotten, wascally “papists” who disagreed with Calvin did so because they were evil demons, led by Satan:

We indeed, Sadoleto, deny not that those over which you preside are Churches of Christ, but we maintain that the Roman Pontiff, with his whole herd of pseudo-bishops, who have seized upon the pastor’s office, are ravening wolves, whose only study has hitherto been to scatter and trample upon the kingdom of Christ, filling it with ruin and devastation. (Olin, ibid., 75)

Even when he disagrees with Luther, he can’t show respect for the Founder of Protestantism. He is too consistently Protestant to do that:

. . . if Luther has so great a lust of victory, he will never be able to join along with us in a sincere agreement respecting the pure truth of God. For he has sinned against it not only from vainglory and abusive language, but also from ignorance and the grossest extravagance. For what absurdities he pawned upon us in the beginning, when he said the bread is the very body! And if now he imagines that the body of Christ is enveloped by the bread, I judge that he is chargeable with a very foul error. What can I say of the partisans of that cause? Do they not romance more wildly than Marcion respecting the body of Christ? . . . (Letter to Martin Bucer, January 12, 1538; in John Dillenberger, editor, John Calvin: Selections From His Writings, Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Co. [Anchor Books], 1971, 47)

In their madness they even drew idolatry after them. For what else is the adorable sacrament of Luther but an idol set up in the temple of God? (Letter to Martin Bucer, June 1549; in Jules Bonnet, editor, John Calvin: Selected Works of John Calvin: Tracts and Letters: Letters, Part 2, 1545-1553, volume 5 of 7; translated by David Constable; Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1983; reproduction of Letters of John Calvin, volume II [Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1858], p. 234)

This is the fruit of the Protestant rule of faith (sola Scriptura), with its corresponding private judgment and individualistic supreme right of conscience. There is no way to resolve it. There ain’t no way out of it. It’s catch-22. It comes with the territory. One has to either accept the notion of an authoritative Church that can issue binding, infallible decrees, or one becomes their own pope.

The bald appeal to Scripture is only as good as the interpretation of Scripture, and as we all know, folks (even good “Bible-based” Protestants) differ about that. It is either the pope in Rome or 600 million Protestant popes + the one in Rome. This state of affairs flows from the system itself: from its internal principles. It is unbridled individualistic subjectivism and lack of solid thinking.

Why should Luther and Calvin’s authority be respected above the claimed authority of others? Because they were good writers and speakers? Because they were so good at insulting Catholics and the Catholic Church and could rile up the crowds and create resentment and hostility? Because anything (no matter how absurd or self-contradictory or anti-traditional, or impious) was better than Catholicism? Because they constantly appealed to “plain” Scripture?

Is it because they were good at excoriating true Catholic corruptions in practice, and the hypocrisy of individual lackluster Catholics (a thing that Erasmus did just as well) and were experts at throwing the baby out with the bathwater? Because now they’ve been known for 500 years (in fact, Calvin’s 500th birthday is this year) and have earned “authority” by being old and familiar?

None of that is biblical or in accord with how the Church fathers viewed things. For the apostles and fathers it was apostolic succession and historic continuity and infallible Church decrees determined in ecumenical councils, confirmed by popes. That was (and is, in Catholicism) how authority and true apostolic doctrine was conferred and passed on, not because someone had a big mouth or an elegant, prolific pen, and was good at insults and propaganda, and whipping a crowd and a populace into a frenzy, and so gained a following.

The present-day legatees of these same self-appointed supposed saviors of Christianity and the gospel never seem willing to sufficiently think through the implications of their own stated position, and so (almost despite themselves and the many truly good and Christian elements in their systems) end up with a mess of unworkable contradictory propositions, leading to many hundreds of denominations that contradict each other all over the place.


(originally 6-24-09)

Photo credit: Lifeinthetrees (12-24-17). A 120 degrees 2 forked IFS fractal [Wikimedia CommonsCreative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license]


Follow Us!

Browse Our Archives