A Long Debate

Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) and Martin Luther (1483-1546) were marking figures in their day, an era when some of the biggest questions of life were being debated. Their views did much to shape the world we now experience. That’s a bold claim so let’s take a brief look in their direction in case you’re curious to hear more.

The two men shared a number of values; yet they were profoundly opposed in others. Heiko Oberman’s outstanding study, Luther: Man between God and the Devil, traces some of these in chapter 7.

Oberman—on an issue I’ll follow here—pointed to a key feature of Humanist studies shared by Erasmus and Luther: the original languages of the Bible. Both men believed the underlying texts of the Bible needed to be available to church teachers. But the two men differed in how Bible knowledge was to be applied in life.

Bible exegesis—the technical examination of Greek or Hebrew texts by trained readers—offered the prospect of clearer interpretive insights. But in practice exegetical studies often led to conflicting conclusions. So was something wrong with the approach?

Not necessarily. Some parts of the Scriptures are harder to sort out than others. This may be attributed to loosely linked texts on a given theme; or to cryptic texts that can be read in different ways. So the reader reaches conclusions by drawing interpretive lines between elements of related content. This calls for creativity and a keen sense of the author’s purposes. But—using the analogy of a child’s draw-by-numbers book—there are no numbers to guide the reader so there’s proper room for disagreement among readers who draw lines between different points.

Over against that challenge is a balancing reality that Bible authors are, for the most part, very clear in what they’ve written. Any entry-level reader will able to follow, understand, and apply most of what they’ve read.

But there’s more to it. The task of sifting out the relatively few uncertainties in Bible reading from the widespread sections of wholly understandable Scripture is multiplied by elevating church traditions—or dogmatic theology—that require texts to be read in a certain way even if that reading violates a clear or common sense reading. Jesus confronted this as a problem in his own day with the “Corban” controversy of Mark 7:9-12.

This touches a point where Luther and Erasmus differed. Erasmus approached the Bible with a programmatic skepticism that Oberman wryly labeled as an elevation of the Bible into “Holy Scriptures” that were then “locked away with seven papal seals that could only be broken by the ‘Holy Church.’” [215] Erasmus was like other churchmen of his day who held Scriptures to be so complex that only select scholars could interpret and apply them. He was, in effect, a liberal conservative: liberal in chasing the underlying texts; but conservative in engaging them.

Luther, on the other hand, believed the Bible had been burdened with a host of pre-judgments shaped by Church traditions that were, in turn, loaded with philosophical assumptions that either denied or obscured the common sense meaning of the Bible. The Bible, in other words, was being suppressed by systematic scholarship. Luther held that even a layman who read the Bible with an open heart could begin to see Christ with faith-producing clarity.

Oberman pressed the contrast. For Erasmus and his modern followers today, “that would mean the systematic theologians above all . . . so complicate the Scriptures that the ‘uninitiated’ Christian can no longer find any solid ground in which to root his faith. [But, by contrast] ‘the Holy Ghost is not a skeptic,’ says Luther; He does not lead us into the semi-obscurity of conflicting views on the basic questions that, true to the spirit of scholarly detachment, should be left unanswered.” [215]

The point is, Christ’s revelation of the Father is clear and captivating—and He is the one the Bible offers any reader who comes without wearing the blinders of “scholarly detachment” and foggy dogmatic overlays.

Yet the debate continues. The modern theological offspring of Erasmus will tell us to read their systems of theology—with the Bible held to be a storehouse of proof-texts that is not to be read as a whole by any but the experts. And, on the other hand, the offspring of Luther will be calling any who are spiritually hungry to start reading their Bibles and never stop!

So for any and all Erasmian Christians who still prefer reading Systematics as their main course of spiritual feeding, I’ll remind you that there’s an alternative to be considered.

As you may have guessed by now, I’m on Luther’s side of the debate. Come, taste and see what he promoted for yourself.



  1. Gretchen

    Getting a taste of church history through your writing and those of others has caused me to want to dig deeper to understand where our theology comes from. Thanks for another nibble here!

    Now 14+ years into my Bible read-through experience, I can attest to the fact that there is much to be gained by an untrained reader enjoying the Triune God revealed by the Bible. I am often startled and happily surprised at the things the Holy Spirit reveals as I read. Most of all, though, the more I read, the more I see Christ in His beauty, and the more I love Him. That’s the best gift of all!

  2. R N Frost

    Amen! Thanks, Gretchen, for your example in so clearly and persistently enjoying the Bible as God’s accessible and transforming word. It’s an invitation to all of us.

    And if you want some very good history (though chewy at many points) you should put Oberman’s book on your reading table.

  3. Phillip

    Great stuff, Ron; many thanks! We just looked at Luther and Erasmus this week in my part-time theological studies at Wycliffe Hall. Wonderful to see you writing on this at such a providential time!

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