June 24, 2018


The Two Minds that Made Europe: a review of Fatal Discord: Erasmus, Luther, and the Fight for the Western Mind by Michael Massing.   (DANIEL JAMES SUNDAHL, 6/24/18, University Bookman)

Michael Massing's thesis in this massive undertaking, Fatal Discord, argues that the rift between Erasmus and Luther--now some five hundred years past--defines the rippling course then taken by the Western mind. It's an engrossing dual biography suggesting the disputes between the two men gave rise to colliding traditions with us to this day. Both were developing new designs for living by rebelling against the restraints of the Roman Church. For Massing, Erasmus and Luther's historical time is the fault line "when the medieval gave way to the modern." The two enduring forms of thought illustrate the beginnings of Christian humanism and evangelical Christianity. [...]

Martin Luther, whose biography "duels" with that of Erasmus, is grounded in the "Ninety-five Theses," his proposition for a debate over the question of indulgences. The issue? The doctrine was uncertain in the Roman Catholic Church prior to the Council of Trent, which defined the doctrine and eliminated abuses. Prior to the Council, "indulgences" were commutations for money, a penalty due for sin, but also regarded as part of the sacrament of penance. Abuses became common.

Massing is clear on this issue, noting that Luther, a stout German and professor of moral theology at Wittenberg, was one with the German people in resenting the money they were forced to contribute to Rome.

His argument? Indulgences are not evidence of true repentance but more likely attempts to avoid repentance and sorrow for sin. One's entry into Paradise cannot be had by a handful of indulgence certificates. Equally to the point is Luther's argument for the bondage of the will, that protesting shot heard around the world and a rebuttal of Erasmus's argument for a free will.

For these "reformers" it was no mere academic question. For Luther such was the cornerstone of the gospel and the biblical doctrine of grace: without God's grace the will is not free at all but a permanent bondslave of sin. For Erasmus, in contrast, Christianity was essentially morality and the will was free, and in this context gave a power to mankind by which one could apply oneself to those things that lead to eternal salvation; in other words, the will does not need grace to have effective power.

The two men never met but carried on a correspondence, often vitriolic from Luther's pen, and thus became implacable foes. Their collision is with us today, culturally and even politically. Reading Massing's sprawling treatise forces the reader to look into the spirit of one's own belief: human perfectibility or the incorrigible depravity of human nature?

Unfortunately, Germany joined the rest of Continental Europe and sank into the mire of Erasmianism--the belief that Man could create perfect society as a function of the Will.  It was the Anglosphere and peripheral Europe (chiefly Scandinavia) that avoided the disaster, retaining an abiding and entirely healthy skepticism about the limits of Reason and sinful Man. As a political matter the latter was best captured in Federalist 51:

[T]he great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

This policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives, might be traced through the whole system of human affairs, private as well as public. We see it particularly displayed in all the subordinate distributions of power, where the constant aim is to divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other -- that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights. These inventions of prudence cannot be less requisite in the distribution of the supreme powers of the State.

Europe's bloody 19th and 20th centuries were a function of its imprudence.

Posted by at June 24, 2018 7:24 AM