Reformation Month: Day 3

31 Days, 31 Books

One of the great men and gifted scholars that God raised up in the 16th century was Desiderius Erasmus.  The life and labors of Erasmus were largely centered around the Greek New Testament.  He not only had a scholar’s thirst for the original manuscripts, but he had a desire for every plowboy in Europe to be able to read the Bible for himself.  Also, Erasmus saw the corruption and foolishness of the Roman Catholic Church of the 16th Century.  His vision for reformation was great and his labors were a blessing we enjoy to this day.

But Erasmus only saw a part of the problem.  In many institutions, including the U. S. Government, there are those who see and speak out against certain things where change is desperately needed.  There are recurring problems with those who see the need to trim branches when there are problems reaching into the roots.  That was the problem with Erasmus.  Martin Luther and many others rejoiced over the availability of the Greek New Testament.  They prized the labors of Erasmus and watched to see where his lead would take them.  Thank God for Erasmus, but thank God for those who saw his limitations and weaknesses.

Erasmus: A Humanist and Renaissance Scholar par excellence

Erasmus only wanted some limb-trimming, not any uprooting.  Granted, Luther had limits to how far he would prefer the reforming principles to go, but events pushed him farther into the storm of history that we call the Reformation.  The root problem in the late Medieval Roman Catholic Church was not this indulgence or that relic or just the lack of Bibles.  The heart of the matter was the heart.  The key issue was, “What must I do to be saved?”  It was that question that vexed Luther and drove him to plow through the Book of Romans with such zeal.

Through the centuries, there was a core of Augustinian teaching that had preserved a bit of life in the Roman Catholic Church.  Luther reconnected with Augustine.  Erasmus held to a theology that weakened the key doctrines of salvation.  Man’s will was free and able to choose the good, so thought Erasmus.  He wanted the plowboys to read the Bible so that they would be rationally convinced of Biblical truth and would so choose it.

Luther saw into the heart of man.  He saw the abyss, the darkness of the soul.  No doubt, God gave Luther a highly sensitive conscience and a piercing awareness of the human heart and thought.  Man was not and never has been free and able to will and to do that which is right and good.  Left to himself, man would never choose to obey God, would never submit to the Gospel, would never confess his sins to Christ.  The will of man was in great bondage to sin, and only by being made captive by the Spirit of God and put in glorious bondage to Christ, would man be saved.

Bondage of the Will is often ranked as one of the defining texts of the Reformation.  It gives the reader a flavor of the “take-no-prisoners” approach to writing in that time.  This is not a nice neat presentation of an opposing viewpoint.  Luther attacks with fury.  He contends that the heart of the Gospel is at stake.  This is no ecumenical, let’s all be friends, warm and fuzzy look at what unites us.  Instead, this is divide and conquer, go for the jugular, spare no pains at killing the enemy approach.  Like it or not, that is what Luther was.  A mild mannered Luther would have kept the truth under a basket for another hundred years.

Years ago, Randy Booth and I decided we would both read this book.  I am sure we had some late night telephone calls discussing the book, but they have since been forgotten.  In more recent years, I have assigned it to my Modern World Humanities classes.  This is not written for today’s Christian youth in high school.  That’s why we read it.  A person can read about half of the book and get the essence of the argument.  There is a point, early on, where Luther has Erasmus on the ropes and is pounding him endlessly.  The referees could have called the fight at that point.  So, reading a few chapters can suffice, but there is something to be said for perseverance in all things.

Luther was a big man.  His flaws cast shadows across the ages of history, but he was a man of God whose vision of salvation freed many and continue to free many from both the chains of sin and of man-made and man-centered religion.  The Reformation of the 1500s was greatly needed, but that Reformation truly had to get an accurate grasp on the nature of man apart from Christ and the change that salvation makes.

The edition of The Bondage of the Will that includes the introduction by J. I. Packer and O. R. Johnston is the one to get. Packer’s description of the history and theology is outstanding.

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