In Erasmus’s On Free Will, Erasmus says that we probably shouldn’t be all that bothered about the debate between free will and predestination. We could spend ages pouring over the Bible trying to figure out which is which, or we could just accept that it’s maybe not something we’re fully meant to know and get on with our lives. Luther responds in On the Bondage of the Will with ‘nah fuck that, everything in the Bible is plain and simple.’ Hoo boy, here we go again.
So obviously Luther’s doing his whole Reformation thing, and he’s rejecting the role of the church fathers and church tradition. He’s saying that Christian principles should be solely founded on the precepts of the Bible. Erasmus is partly replying to that argument by saying yeah, fair enough, although it’s not always clear exactly what the Bible means. He writes that “the authority of the Scripture is not here in dispute. The same Scriptures are acknowledged and venerated by either side. Our battle is about the meaning of Scripture.” He also argues that you can’t just go round claiming that you’ve got the correct answer because the Holy Spirit showed it to you, because any asshole can say that. “What am I to do when many bring diverse interpretations, about which each swears he has the Holy Spirit?” It’s a pretty reasonable point. The solution, for Erasmus, is to lean into the history of the church. The text is written in 1524, meaning they’ve already had one and a half thousand years of martyrs and saints and teachers and prophets, all committed believers thinking and writing about God. Erasmus thinks we’re best off leaning into that tradition, especially given the sometimes difficult and contradictory nature of the Bible.
Now Luther’s got no time for that shit. He’s starting his own church, so he doesn’t want all this fiddle faddle about tradition. His main response here is that actually, the Bible has a pretty plain and straightforward meaning, and people who argue and debate about it are just pedants or sophists or assholes. In Section 4, he argues that some individual words or places in the Bible might be unclear, but that the Big Points of the Bible are obvious and straightforward, so it doesn’t matter. “There are many places in the Scripture obscure and abstruse… from our ignorance of certain terms and grammatical particulars; but [they] do not prevent a knowledge of all the things in the Scriptures.” Basically, we know about Jesus, so we know everything important about the Bible, and all the little grammatical questions are pretty irrelevant.
It’s a bit of an odd claim: Luther doesn’t seem to think that the petty grammatical questions might conceal some rather significant details that might in turn inform our understanding of the Bible. For instance, in Section 36 he’s still complaining about Erasmus saying that the Bible is sometimes confusing, and he offers two quotes as proof that it’s all obvious and simple. The first is “God created the heavens and the earth,” and the second is “The Word was made flesh.” The first one seems okay, on a skim read, and we do know what’s generally meant by the second quote too. It’s talking about how Jesus became a flesh and blood human. Jesus is the Word. Pretty straightforward. But what precisely is meant by ‘the Word’? Is it referring to how God spoke creation into existence? Is it saying that Jesus is the literal words that God-the-Father spoke? Is it suggesting something about how Jesus is God’s self-revelation, as if God reveals His nature through speech and communication? What is the significance of the title? It’s not entirely clear. Now, Luther might think that such questions are pedantic and petty, but it seems pretty important to me. It’s an odd term to use for Jesus. It probably carries some significance and tells us something about Christ’s character. As Erasmus says, “the deeper we go, the darker and darker it becomes, by which means we are led to acknowledge the unsearchable majesty of the divine wisdom, and the weakness of the human mind.” But for Luther – nah, it’s plain and simple. Not confusing or unclear at all.
Part of Luther’s theory is that the meaning of the Bible is “placed in the understanding of the heart,” meaning that God comes along and sticks the meaning inside you. He also thinks that there’s an external clearness which comes through “the ministry of the word.” I’m not entirely sure what that entails, but it sounds similar to Calvin’s idea, that the Spirit pops up when preaching happens and puts the meaning of the Bible into people. Both of these methods are pretty internal, which raises the problems that Erasmus was talking about earlier. Luther actually agrees with Erasmus on this point, noting that he’s been having a bunch of arguments “with those fanatics who subject the Scriptures to the interpretation of their own boasted Spirit.” I’m not totally sure who he’s referring to here, but he’s obviously aware of the issue.
At the same time, Luther sees the issue as something that the Catholics have exploited. This is where I’m easily most sympathetic to Luther’s argument. So far my experience has been that he’s talking past Erasmus and generally failing to engage with what’s actually being said, as well as being a bit of a shit. But here I feel what he’s saying. Luther argues that even as these ‘fanatics’ claim to have the best knowledge of the Bible, so too does the Papacy. He says that for Catholics, “the Spirit, as the Interpreter, should be sought from the apostolical see of Rome.” That’s definitely a problem. I mean arguably Christians of any denomination look to their forebears and founders for instruction in how to behave (even Lutherans, no?), but the Catholics had an iron grip on orthodoxy. Luther says that in the Pope and his followers, “a set of impious men have exalted themselves above the Scriptures themselves.” It’s a massive part of the Reformation: Luther calls for individuals to be able to read the Bible for themselves, so that they might have direct contact with God’s Word rather than being told what to do by the Catholic clergy. It’s a key factor in claiming that regular people can comprehend the Bible – it’s not too hard, he says, and it’s not too obscure. That’s just a ruse so that the clergy can keep you under control. I agree with the general impulse, although the specific argument that the Bible is thoroughly comprehensible and not obscure or complicated at all in any of its key claims – yeah, nah.