Church HistoryTheology & Spirituality

Modern Erasmian

Long before the Protestant Reformation, cries for church “reformation” could be heard throughout Christendom. Heiko Oberman posits that in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the word was as ubiquitous and malleable as “democracy” is today.1 Thus, reform efforts took many different shapes, ranging from attempts to return to first principles to viewpoints with messianic expectations for society.

First the Waldensians and Albigensians, and later the mendicant orders, vigorously pursued apostolic poverty as a fuller realization of Matthew 19:21. This spawned a debate on property in the Church that greatly agitated the Franciscans, causing them to second-guess the doctrine of papal infallibility they had espoused only a generation prior. Another attempt at “reform” came from the Observant Movement which was criticized as being rigorist and, in fairness, did stand for strict adherence to the founding standards of monasticism. On all fronts, criticism of the lax morality of the clerical elite and illustrious wealth of the Church were unforgiving.

It was within this context that John Wycliffe and John Hus arose. Building on these existing debates, they became the most influential critics of the Church on the hot topics of morality, property, and authority. Both held that only the true Church of the faithful and obedient deserved ownership of wealth and property. Since the Church was in their estimation morally bankrupt, it had claim to neither.

Hus intensified the critique by emphatically professing Augustinian predestination, arguing that the subjective evidence confirming one’s predestination was Christian obedience. His convictions led him to publicly question the Pope’s own predestination and suggest that the sacraments should not be accepted from those priests living in open sin (a pseudo-Donatist view, to be sure). Ultimately, Wycliffe was posthumously excommunicated and Hus was burned a heretic at the Council of Constance. The specter of Hus loomed especially large for those in the Catholic hierarchy because he had inspired so much unrest in Bohemia. Yet, their legacies endured.

When Johann von Eck called Martin Luther “Bohemian” and drew parallels between Luther and Hus, it was a serious accusation not lost on the audience. Luther would go on to affirm Hus at the Diet of Worms (1521), which at the time was a death wish. As Luther’s own legend grew, it was clear to friend and foe alike that Hus’s last prophecy—that “in a hundred years they will hear a swan sing, which they will not be able to silence”—could easily be applied to Luther. But Luther would later draw a distinction between himself and the martyred “Goose” (Hus). “Life,” he said, “is as evil among us as among the papists, thus we do not argue about life but about doctrine. Whereas Wyclif [sic] and Hus attacked the immoral lifestyle of the papacy, I challenge primarily its doctrine.”2 

Luther’s distinction is not entirely accurate since both his predecessors were not unconcerned with doctrine, and Luther himself was certainly not indifferent to the declining morals amongst the Church hierarchy. At bottom, however, moral reform was not Luther’s reform. “The heart of the Reformation is the recovery of sound doctrine—only true faith will lead to the renewal of life.”3

In other words, while back to basics movements are older than Protestantism, Protestantism has, from the beginning, been concerned with theology. Yes, Luther devoured the Church Fathers, Augustine, and Bernard of Clairvaux; but he did so not to extrapolate a model of Christian living, but to revive their undiluted doctrine. Part of what it means to be a post-Luther Protestant is to profess a faith of doctrinal assertions. Do away with assertions, the Protestant says with Luther, and you do away with Christianity.4 

Solum Unitatis

Fast forward to this year’s Orange Conference, a gathering in Atlanta focused on church leadership issues. Andy Stanley spoke on John 17 suggesting that oneness in the faith is “more important than being theologically correct.” For him, unity is a precondition for fulfilling the mission of the church (presumably Matt. 28:16-20).

“[Christ] prayed for our oneness, that we’d be on the same page…. This is mission critical. If they are not one, we will not win … unity is mission critical and disunity disrupts the mission. … Will we prioritize our oneness over our doctrinal peculiarities? Our baptism, our communion, our style of worship, our preaching?”

The Christian Post quoted Stanley as saying that the early church was willing to make “theological and cultural concessions for the sake of unity and so should you and so should I,” citing Acts 15 as his proof text, wherein the Jerusalem council determined that Gentile converts were not required to observe Jewish law. Stanley argued that oneness in the faith was “more important than being theologically correct,” adding that he believed that when Christians of different denominations get to Heaven “we will discover that when it comes to theology, we were all wrong about something.”

Stanley, senior pastor of North Point Community Church, has repeatedly found himself in hot water in the past couple of years, often regarding his approach to scripture, culture, and church history. John Ehrett has written on this here at Conciliar Post, and both Wesley Hill at First Things and Kevin DeYoung at The Gospel Coalition have adequately addressed Stanley’s “unhitching” of the Old Testament, his modern Marcionism.

In this article, I won’t rehash these critiques of Stanley; rather, I detect what Luther would have called Erasmianism in Stanley’s comments. As critiqued in Luther’s The Bondage of the Will, Erasmianism was concerned with peace and unity within Christendom. In more contemporary terms, Erasmianism proposes a gospel that, it could be argued, is a social gospel at best, and moralistic therapeutic deism at worst.

Erasmus and Erasmianism

Erasmus of Rotterdam was  the foremost humanist intellect of Luther’s day, a man who’s greatest gift to the Church was his 1521 Greek New Testament, upon which Luther relied heavily for his own German translation. At the time, Erasmus was thought to be the best hope for reform in the Church, even by Pope Leo X. But, as with many others in his day, Erasmus’ vision for reform was primarily moral. He did not think, as Luther did, that the theology undergirding the system was the problem. Indeed, he was decidedly undogmatic, at least from Luther’s point of view.5 For Erasmus, theology often got in the way of right Christian living. For all his condemnation of ecclesiastical corruption, Erasmus was above all concerned with peace and unity within Christendom. Yet, Erasmus was initially ambivalent toward Luther, often pleading for Rome to exhibit fatherly patience and Christian charity in the whole affair. And though the two never met, Erasmus wrote several times to Luther urging restraint. Whatever else may be said of Erasmus he was, much like Philip Melanchthon, of a gentler spirit and practiced the piety he preached. After being rather unfairly roped in with Luther by mutual opponents, Erasmus was forced to distance himself from the reformer lest he incur the wrath of Rome that all feared was Luther’s fate. Hence, he published his The Free Will (De libero arbitrio Diatribe sive collatio).  

Erasmus’ frustration with Luther was centered on his approach to Christian doctrine. It was too provocative and belligerent for the old Dutchman. Luther’s cavalier and impatient attitude coupled with his comparatively rigid, confident doctrine perplexed him. To Erasmus, Scripture was not unequivocal, and even if Luther’s deterministic approach to the human will were objectively true, public propagation and debate of such was inappropriate. It could be detrimental to the average Christian. The Church was already experiencing a moral crisis by all accounts without Luther mouthing off about man’s inability to do good. Elites might be able to theorize about such things—even they could not expect consensus—but a commoner would inevitably fall into immorality if exposed to such radical ideas. For Erasmus, because Scripture is unclear, not only does Christianity require an institutional authority to offer normative interpretations, but dogmatic certainty is impossible and therefore a foolhardy pursuit. In short, Erasmus’ contention was that Luther emphasized an unprovable position on free will, a topic that Erasmus regarded as both obscure and unimportant.6

Central to Erasmus’ quarrel with Luther was not the content of the German monk’s convictions per se, but the fact that Luther’s faith hinged on dogmatism. The way in which Erasmus sought to dismiss the murky question of free will that Luther meant to emphasize speaks to the chasm between their views of Christianity itself. Thus, underlying this debate on the freedom of the will and the perspicuity of Scripture was really a struggle over the nature of Christianity.

Luther’s Response

In the opening of Luther’s response to the Diatribe he addressed the crux of Erasmus’ thinking. Erasmus had stated emphatically that that he found no satisfaction in assertions and prefered an undogmatic temper. Morality and penitence that could only survive if superstition and immorality, often the products of reckless theologizing, were eradicated from the Church. There was, for Erasmus, no organic connection between doctrinal commitment and moral practice. A practical, Erasmian faith had an interest only in humble piety. And so, even if one was convinced of doctrinal error within the Church, surely it did not justify a disturbance of the peace when Christian principles could be lived out regardless. It was the immorality in the Church that need purging. As a matter of course, the question of man’s freedom could not possibly have any real bearing on one’s Christian life. The humility of the philosophy of Christ should discourage any sincere man of faith from delving into such impenetrable questions, which would only serve to distract from the real work.

Luther’s approach to Christianity differed. True religion was in the first instance not a matter of practice or works, as his doctrine of justification attested, but a matter of faith. Faith for Luther was necessarily correlative to truth.7 Assertions of truth—doctrinal declarations containing the Gospel itself—are then fundamental. Luther’s was a religion of truth claims that corresponded to reality and history, not mere moral sentiments. “Take away assertions, and you take away Christianity. That would be denying religion and piety in one breath,” for piety is resultant only of faith in truths revealed in the Gospel upon which the Christian depends for life.8 Luther’s assertion that free will was impossible held together his entire system of salvation and thus dictated his preaching and practice. Erasmus, in Luther’s view simply did not take all of this seriously enough, a decidedly unChristian approach. “To take no pleasure in assertions is not the mark of a Christian heart; indeed, one must delight in assertions to be a Christian at all.”9  

To Luther, Erasmus’ position came down to this: “that you do not think it matters a scrap what anyone believes anywhere, so long as the world is at peace.”10 Unity and peace in the faith were of more importance than dogmatic truth and belief. Luther unwaveringly held not only that his doctrine of man’s will was correct, but that the issue, contra Erasmus, presented worthwhile inquiry because doctrine and action are intricately connected.

Conclusion

Andy Stanley’s vision of the Christian life, and indeed church reform, mirrors that of Erasmus. The focus of both men is not on doctrinal assertions, but moral action and ecumenical unity with some set of decidedly undogmatic, amorphous Christian principles serving as the feeble glue to the whole project.

It might be asked why Andy Stanley is able to successfully, if that’s the right word, preach what he does without suffering in popularity or reputation. One answer is that modern evangelicalism is more Erasmian than Lutheran. Evangelicalism has always presented a definitional crisis, and has typically been more concerned with inter-party unity than doctrinal clarity and rigidity. The reasons for this impulse are outside the scope of this post, but especially in recent days, with the panic of the culture struggle enveloping the focus of American evangelicalism, the maintenance of unity has often taken precedent over the preservation of truth. Doctrinal distinctions are thought to be needlessly divisive and detrimental to the unity that is necessary for an influential public voice. Thus, the umbrella of the evangelical label includes everyone from Robert Jeffress to Steven Furtick, and from Andy Stanley to T.D. Jakes. All of whom Luther would have rejected (as he did Erasmus) for various reasons.

It matters not a scrap to Stanley that the Trinity be denied or that the Old Testament has been reduced to second fiddle “so long as the world is at peace.” The particular impetus for Stanley’s unity over assertions creed is driven, at least in part, by a zeal for cultural appeal. In the name of evangelism and apologetics he has repeatedly looked for ways to modernize and sanitize orthodoxy of its confusing, mysterious, and uncomfortable doctrines. Per Stanley, rigid assertions, especially those derived from the outdated Old Testament, have driven youths into the arms of secularism. To save them, we must offer them a fresh, experiential, and relevant Christianity that they can make sense of through the lens supplied them by secular cultural concerns and sensibilities.

Like Erasmus, Stanley, though he has never said it outright, seems to think that those who insist on doctrinal rigidity exhibit a hostile, unwholesome attitude that founders the Church. In reality, it is only around unwavering truth claims that unity can be had at all. Again, the historic confessions of the Church attest to this. It has always been around dogmatic assertions that Christianity has defined herself, defended herself, and unified herself.

If not clear already, Luther, never one to mince words, would have called Stanley’s position unChristian. It drives religion into the open arms of Erasmianism, wherein the simplicity of the philosophy of Christ can be enjoyed without the pesky dogmaticians who assert superfluous doctrines. It could be said that Christians, of any denomination, can be divided up between the dogmatic and undogmatic, the assertive and nonassertive, if you will. A line from Cardinal Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua is an example of a non-Protestant who, though he would not have agreed with Luther on the perspicuity of Scripture (and a litany of other things), placed himself in the dogmatic camp, so to speak:

“First was the principle of dogma: my battle was with liberalism; by liberalism I mean the anti-dogmatic principle and its developments. This was the first point on which I was certain.” Newman goes on to note that in his conversion from Anglicanism to Catholicism he had retracted many of his former beliefs, but on this point he had never waivered. He was dogmatically certain of the necessity of dogma. “I have changed in many things: in this I have not. From the age of fifteen, dogma has been the fundamental principle of my religion: I know no other religion; I cannot enter into the idea of any other sort of religion; religion, as a mere sentiment, is to me a dream and a mockery.”11

Which camp one resides in is decided by how they answer the question addressed by Luther. What is Christianity? Is it about affirming and trusting in revealed, objective truth about God, the assertions of the Holy text? Or is about societal improvement and psychological, emotional therapy; bare moral sentiments?   

In the interest of being assertive here, I would argue that at the very least those of Stanley’s ilk are not heirs of Luther’s Reformation. They may continue to call themselves “evangelical” if they wish. The term has lost all coherence anyway. But they are not of Protestantism of Luther (nor the Catholicism of Newman, for that matter), the religion of assertions.    

 


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Timon Cline

Timon Cline

Timon Cline is a native of Memphis, TN and grew up in Dakar, Senegal. He is a graduate of Wright State University, and is concurrently pursuing a J.D. at Rutgers Law School and a M.A. in Religion at Westminster Theological Seminary. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife, Rachel.

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