Luther, Palmerworms and Theological Precision

In hindsight, Luther's concerns about Erasmus seem fairly well founded

Compared to some of the shots Luther fired in his lifetime, his remarks on Erasmus in 1534 seem rather mild. But they were strident enough to elicit regret from Philip Melanchthon over Luther’s “petulance,” a “petulance” Melanchthon was quick to chalk up to “old age” rather than innate temperament. 

 

The details of Luther’s mid-1520s tussle with Erasmus over the issue of sin’s impact on human freedom are generally well known. Luther responded to Erasmus’s 1524 De libero arbitrio diatribe sive collatio with his own 1525 De servo arbitrio [On the Bondage of the Will]. Erasmus, deeply offended when the faux charity and grace he displayed in his work weren’t reciprocated by the German monk, responded in turn with a decidedly less magnanimous two-part effort titled Hyperaspistes (1526/27). Luther never bothered answering this later work, largely because he felt that Erasmus had done a fine job of hanging himself in it–clearly evidencing to all the Pelagian tenor of his thought.

But Erasmus didn’t completely fall off Luther’s radar screen after 1527. In fact, as time went on, Luther became increasingly convinced that Erasmus was to blame for a considerable number of theological and social ills in Germany, not least the rising tide of Anabaptism. In 1534 Luther accordingly published an open letter to his friend Nicolaus von Amsdorf in which he expressed his distaste for Erasmus in no uncertain terms, calling him, for instance, a “palmerworm who [has] crept into the paradise of the Church, and filled every leaf with his maggots.” Luther suggested that he himself had judged Erasmus too charitably in the past, finding him principally guilty of treating “the most sacred subjects” with too much “levity.” He noted that his own effort to rouse Erasmus from his “snoring” — presumably a reference to Luther’s De servo arbitrio, which was addressed to Erasmus — had only served to provoke Erasmus, like a deadly viper. Luther was now convinced, he confided to his friend (and anyone else who cared to tune in), that Erasmus’s problem was “not simply levity, but [rather] malice and an entire ignorance of Christianity” (Henry Worsley, Life of Luther, 2:281).

Compared to some of the shots Luther fired in his lifetime, his remarks on Erasmus in 1534 seem rather mild. But they were strident enough to elicit regret from Philip Melanchthon over Luther’s “petulance,” a “petulance” Melanchthon was quick to chalk up to “old age” rather than innate temperament.

To be sure, Luther was quite capable of petulance, as any number of other exchanges might illustrate. But his concerns about Erasmus probably had more substance than Melanchthon realized.

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