In The Theological Origins of Modernity Michael Allen Gillespie offers a comparison of views in the debate between Martin Luther and the humanist Erasmus. Let me cite a part of his discussion at length:
The crucial issue in the debate, however, is not epistemological and methodological but substantive. It is a question of the relationship of God and man. Luther had argued in his Assertion [Against all Articles in the Bull of Leo X] that God was responsible both before and after the Fall for everything, that there never was and never could be a free will. Erasmus argues in opposition that “mankind was created so as to have a free will; the tyrant Satan took it away as a captive, grace restored and augments it. … The core issue for Erasmus is Luther’s unequivocal assertion that God is responsible for everything and that anything man does on his own is sin. For Erasmus this unnecessarily denigrates human beings and removes all the traditional religious incentives for moral behavior. [149; he cites Erasmus, Collected Works, 76:190]
Most of us will sense the weight of these issues in an instant. Erasmus is defending our basic capacity as humans to be moral agents—to be responsible for our own sin and, with God’s help, for our own salvation. Luther, on the other hand, treated this view as a deception foisted on us from hell itself. So who was right and who was wrong?
Most Christians today, I suspect, would vote with Erasmus. Given the moral optimism of our modern world he seems sensible while Luther’s pessimism leaves us cold. The only hitch is that Luther moved to his view only after he took up serious Bible study—and his reading paralleled that of the great church father, Augustine of Hippo—while Erasmus did less with the Bible and relied more fully on the Pelagian tradition. The early church had declared Pelagius to be wrong and Erasmus, knowing this, tried to distance his own view from earlier figure while still agreeing with him in substance.
Yet, as I just noted, it’s mostly a moot issue to Christians today: common sense is back in the driver’s seat. So Augustine and Luther are easy to dismiss in our current moral pragmatism—that each of us has to do what we think is right, given our particular needs and settings. But God may not agree with us, and that calls for a certain pause.
At the root stands the question of who rules the world. For Erasmus the world has Satanic influences at work in it, and the wise man chooses to follow God instead. For Luther the world is fully controlled by Satan unless and until a person is taken captive by God’s grace in Christ.
What Luther saw, and Erasmus ignored, is that Jesus recognized Satan as the true ruler of the world from the fall of Adam onward. So it was the mission of Jesus in his incarnation to reverse this: “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” [Hebrews 2:14-15]. We recall, too, that when Jesus was tempted at the beginning of his earthly ministry Satan offered him the chance to take over the rule of humanity, but it would only come at the expense of having Jesus—the God-man—worship Satan.
Paul understood this as well when he wrote, in Ephesians 2:1-3, that all humanity—apart from Christ—is dead in sin. Not just some; all. Erasmus was satisfied to say we were all sick or weak because of sin, but certainly not “dead”. That would be too pessimistic and would undercut the call for humanity to choose God and be saved.
I’ve raised these themes before in my prior posts, I know, so let me add another point here that extends the issues at stake. Luther held that it was God’s good purpose to allow Satan to invite Adam into a living death: to enslave humanity within the realm of death—the space where God who is life is absent—and thus to usurp Adam’s place as God’s dominion-bearer on earth by manipulating “the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind” [Ephesians 2:3]. Satan knew that we are ruled by our passions—by our “hearts”—which as the response-center of the soul makes us completely vulnerable to a host of deceitful premises and promises. We had been made to be responders to God’s love and we, instead, became lovers of self in terms the devil knew how to manipulate. The greatest of these was our moral pride: the idea that we can operate as free-standing moral agents, “knowing [i.e. choosing] what is good and evil”. This was the scheme that trapped Pelagius, Erasmus, and the world as a whole.
So what did Luther see so clearly? What helped launch the protestant Reformation? That apart from Christ we can do nothing. That we are made to be followers of God, not his partners. And it was God’s purpose to let us discover where the promise of our affective independence—our giving our hearts over to Satan’s premise that we can be god-like—would lead: to death.
And then, in our despair, his love would meet us in our sin. Jesus became sin for us so that we can receive his righteousness by our union “in him”—he died and we lived. But death couldn’t hold him and the story ends well for all of us who dismiss Pelagian optimism and Erasmian folly by responding once again to God’s love for us: completely and wholeheartedly.
Only then is Adam’s fall reversed. It was God’s plan for us from the beginning to become prodigals (with hearts always free to love or not to love) in order to see that sin has nothing to offer. Our Father’s love, by contrast, is unending and satisfying. He’s all we were made for as we come to him by the Spirit uniting us to Christ. Luther was right.