Luther and Erasmus
Every generation has a leader who changes the course of history, what is rare is for a generation to have two significant leaders from the same continent. In the mid-sixteenth century Europe was being shaped by two opposite, yet strikingly similar, religious leaders: Luther and Erasmus. The similarities are obviously their desire to see the church, specifically the Church of Rome, reformed. Their differences, however, take a much larger scope. Luther was a pastor, Erasmus an academic. Luther ardently propagated his ideas, Erasmus was less forceful with his views. Luther believed that doctrine was worth splitting over, Erasmus thought that unity was important. Similarly, Luther saw correct theology as the most important thing about the Church, Erasmus, on the other hand, thought that theology should not be at the forefront, rather, Christians should focus on morality and love as a way to continue on in the faith.
The question then remains as to why Luther was able to be so successful, eventually altering the face of Christianity, while Erasmus has been resigned to the annals of history. On a basic level Luther’s willingness to circulate his writings with the expressed intent of winning converts is reason enough for his success. More importantly, though, is Luther’s connection with the state. Erasmus was ardently opposed to having the state enforce doctrine. As a pacifist he did not think it wise to have wars fought over issues of theology. Luther’s willingness to have his views promoted by government, especially at a time when the nation state was beginning to become a force, allowed his theological beliefs to continue after his own personal influence had waned.
There are some who would identify the failure of Erasmus as one of the greatest tragedies in the history of Christianity. This is due to the fact that if Erasmus had won, if the Catholic Church had been reformed without the rise of Protestantism, there would still exist a unity in the Church that is unthinkable today. And there is a piece of this critique that is certainly valid. The divisions and doctrinal disputes that exist today can be troubling indeed. Certainly we have a long way to go before Christ’s prayer for unity can be realized. But even considering this, it is not clear that Luther’s victory is the Church’s failure. The essence of Erasmus’ ideas failing to gain hold has led the Church to be more focused on doctrine, precisely as Luther envisioned. In order for Erasmus’ failure to be a tragedy, in the truest sense of the word, one has to concede that doctrine is of secondary importance. While it is not necessary to debate how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, it is important to know why we celebrate communion, who should be baptized, and how one obtains salvation. We should never cease working for unity, and we should certainly never create controversy over secondary issues, but if we are going to truly love God we must begin by understanding who God is, and thus the importance of theology.