Monday, December 29, 2014

The Battle of Scriptural Interpretation: Luther v. Erasmus

Here we are in the last post of the year 2014. It's been an interesting year all things considered, as this blog has become completely changed in its importance to my life. Due to time restraints, much over the last few months, my blog posts have been edited (ish) out of my college assignments. Unfortunately, today is no different.  I hope you enjoy a rather academic discussion of who has a better biblical argument: Luther or Erasmus on Free Will. One good way of reading this would be as a case study of what makes proper biblical interpretation.

Luther’s arguments were often in contrast with those of the established church. Such was the case with Luther’s arguments against the free will of man. The church beseeched Erasmus to write a response to Luther’s argument, which in turn elicited a further response from Luther. Upon analysis of their works, it becomes evident that Luther provides a better biblical argument (please note that this does not mean I agree with his arguments whole-heartedly. To demonstrate this, we will first evaluate the criteria by which we shall judge who has a better biblical argument, and then look at Erasmus and Luther’s arguments through that criteria.

Criteria - Proper Biblical Interpretation

From a definitional standpoint, a better biblical argument is one that is better supported by Scripture. But as these two giants (or maybe an elephant and a fly) both quote biblical passages in their arguments, there needs to be an analysis of what constitutes valid biblical support in the first place. Dr Jason Lee, Dean of the School of Biblical and Theological Studies at Cedarville University, says that in evaluating doctrinal debates, one should evaluate biblical support in accordance with whether or not the author was intending to express doctrine (twas a personal communication). In determining such intent, it is helpful that we follow the entirety of the author’s thought process, as well as how any other biblical authors respond to it. Naturally, there are no direct verses regarding free will in the Bible; otherwise, there would be no need for this discussion at all. Thus, we will see both sides arguing from inferences, but we should evaluate whether those inferences are built from interpretation of passages based on the intent of the biblical author.

Of course, according to Erasmus, the differences in opinion about unclear scriptural passages ought to be evaluated by the church alone, rendering our criteria irrelevant, as whatever the church says, must be deemed as correct. Nevertheless, as Luther points out, the Bible is written so as to be approachable to the common man, and thus, a specific authority in the church is not needed to evaluate which of these two men has a better biblical argument.

(This does not discount the importance of communal interpretation of the Scripture. There is one correct interpretation of the Bible, and collaborating with other members of the body of Christ is essential to a proper interpretation. However, church authorities are not needed to rule on differing interpretations directly, as the Bible is understandable by all of the church, not just a select few. For further development of this idea, see my later analysis on Deuteronomy 30.)

Erasmus' Misinterpretation of Scripture

Erasmus begins by quoting a passage from the apocryphal book Ecclesiasticus. Unfortunately for Erasmus’ argument, at the time when he was writing, Ecclesiasticus was not even formally recognized as canonical by the Catholic Church.  In a world where even the established church who was supporting Erasmus in this argument doesn’t say that Ecclesiasticus is Scripture, it’s hard to consider it as biblical support. Thus, Erasmus’ argument from this passage is excluded from our analysis.

Even still, Erasmus quotes over 25 passages from the universally accepted biblical canon to support his logical arguments. Erasmus, for instance, argues that the commands in Scripture all imply the existence of free will. After all, one does not tell someone bound and unable to move, “Come.” Erasmus feels promises of rewards imply the same as one doesn’t reward someone for something he had no choice but to do. Still, it is difficult to argue that the authors of these verses were intending to promote the doctrine of free will. For instance, was Paul really making a statement about free will when he challenged Timothy to “endure hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ?”

The closest Erasmus comes to our intent-based criterion is Deuteronomy 30:11-19, in which he talks about total depravity. In this text, Moses seems to tell the Israelites that the law is very nigh unto them, “that thou mayest do it.”  Erasmus concludes that this means that men have the ability and will to obey the law. Yet almost everything in this passage gives us reason to think that Moses was writing about the approachability and understandability of the law, not about the ability of the Israelites to follow it.

Indeed, Paul uses this very passage to indicate that the message of the scripture (specifically the gospel) is clear and understandable. This is within a chapter declaring the futility of an attempt to obey the law.  This demonstrates at least that Paul, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, thought that Moses was only intending to speak of the approachability of the law, rather than the Israelites’ ability to obey. As an inspired author, Paul must know what the passage means; thus, Erasmus’ contradictory interpretation must be wrong. As this is the closest Erasmus comes to proper interpretation of Scriptures, this leaves Erasmus with little more than human rationalization, rather than true biblical support.

Luther's Slightly Better Biblical Interpretation

Far too often, Luther also relies upon implications of passages, rather than authorial intent. Nevertheless, Luther does include some proper biblical support. In relation to Erasmus’ arguments from Deuteronomy 30 (as well as Erasmus’ conclusions from the rest of Old Testament commands), Luther argues that the law’s sole purpose was to show us our need for Christ. He specifically cites Romans 3:20, which states,
“Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.” 

It is evident that Paul is making a doctrinal point about the nature of the law. If Luther really wanted to solidify this authorial intent, he should have cited the many other selections of Paul’s writings,  where this theme is developed. Even still, Luther’s counter-argument on the law’s purpose has better biblical support than Erasmus’ original argument did.

Luther’s arguments against free will are largely predicated on his belief in total depravity. Luther’s main proof for this is from Romans 1. Here we see Paul explain that the men of this world are ignorant of righteousness. According to Luther, one cannot act righteously if he does not even know what is righteous.

Ultimately, it is hard to give this verse much credence in its efforts to prove the depravity of man, as Paul never gives any clue that the sin he is discussing here is completely universal. Luther reads this into the text himself, by saying that the word “all” in the clause, “All ungodliness and unrighteousness of men,”  modifies the term men. A grammatical view of the text, on the other hand, would indicate that “all” modifies the words closest to it, namely, “ungodliness and unrighteousness.” Thus, we see no reason that Paul was intending this passage as a statement about the sinfulness of all men.

Even so, Luther’s argument from Romans 3:9 provides a stronger indication of the depravity of man. Here Paul declares that “all are under sin.” It is Luther’s contention that this excepts none, and is a great indication that ultimately that “all are under sin.” This takes the sin shown in Romans 1, and makes it universal.

Indeed, directly thereafter, Paul starts a long soliloquy that includes such statements as, “There is none righteous,”  “There is none that seeketh after God,”  “All the world may become guilty before God,”  and “For all have sinned.”  Thus, Paul intended the selfsame doctrine that Luther interprets from the verses. It is here that Luther argues that the depravity of man prevents him from choosing God (seeking after Him, perhaps?).Thus we see Luther’s use of implications to prove his argument. However, unlike Erasmus he does at least have a biblical foundation upon which to build his logical arguments.

Ultimately, both men present logical arguments, but only Luther has proper biblical foundation upon which to build his arguments as a whole. Erasmus’ implication-based style of argument simply ignores authorial intent. Thus, it is evident that Luther provides better biblical support for his argument than Erasmus did.

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