I am not a church historian, but I do like reading about what happened in church history. There is a man I’ve read about who has always fascinated me. Erasmus, a contemporary of Martin Luther, produced the first printed edition the Greek NT, Novum Instrumentum omne (1516), which allowed many people to study the NT text in the original language. One of his goals was for everybody to be able to read the NT on their own. He spoke out against the abuses of the Catholic Church before Luther did. In his writings, he said that the Catholic Church had obviously distorted the teachings of Christ and the apostles. He attacked the selling of indulgences and said that Catholic priests, and even the pope, were evil men. In fact, he called them tyrants.
But here is what most fascinates me about Erasmus: After Luther began the Reformation, Erasmus did not leave the Catholic Church. He praised Luther for pointing out the abuses of the church, but he rebuked Luther and others for leaving it. Erasmus’s view was that they should remain in the church, working from the inside to encourage it to make the changes that he agreed needed to be made. In other words, Erasmus wanted to reform the Catholic Church from within. He was strongly opposed to starting what would later be called Protestant churches.
My guess is that the majority of the readers of this blog will have the same reaction: How could he feel this way? If we put it in modern terms, Erasmus was saying that it would be better today if there were no Baptist, Presbyterian, or Bible churches. Everybody who claims to be a Christian should attend the Catholic Church. But how could he hold that position if he spoke out so strongly about the evils of that church, especially when he pointed out that its practices were contrary to the teachings of the Scriptures?
No doubt, there were many reasons for Erasmus’s view. He had grown up in the church, and it was a major part of the culture in which he lived. He had many friends in the church. He felt comfortable in the church, in spite of its many shortcomings. Above all, he wanted there to be unity among Christians.
Protestants of all stripes, however, would wonder what Erasmus thought about the gospel of the Catholic Church. The church taught that salvation was the result of works plus grace offered through the sacraments of the church. It also taught the need of purgatory, in order to purge the members of the church of their sins after they died. Luther, of course, taught that justification was by faith alone. How could Erasmus disagree with Luther’s stand on people’s need to leave the Catholic Church and proclaim justification by faith alone?
Looking back on church history, we could certainly point out that Luther and the other Reformers made their own mistakes. Some of their beliefs and practices were contrary to the Scriptures. We could even ask if these men were consistent in preaching salvation by grace through faith alone. They were not. But for the sake of argument, I would like to narrow this issue down to one point. If Luther and the others saw the Catholic Church as teaching a gospel of eternal life through works, and they believed the Scriptures said it was by faith alone, should they have left the church? Was the issue of the gospel important enough to break away?
It is here that we get a glimpse into the mind of Erasmus. In 1525, he wrote about what Luther was doing. He was glad that Luther and others had pointed out the danger of indulgences and the evil practices of the Catholic priests. Such things needed to be reformed. But other things were not worth fighting over. If the members of the Catholic Church wanted to believe that dead saints could help them, or that believers would first go to purgatory after they died, that was not a major problem. Luther and the others ought to have tolerance towards such things. The same was true for the gospel in general. Erasmus wrote, “Whether works justify or faith justifies matters little, since all allow that faith will not save without works” (E. H. Broadbent, The Pilgrim Church [Gospel Folio Press: Grands Rapids, MI, 1999], 162-63).
I find this amazing. What Erasmus is saying is that the Reformers had pointed out things that needed to be changed, and that was great. But we shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bath water. He said that the gospel of the Catholic Church and the gospel of the Reformers were basically the same. Even if they said that one is justified by faith, the Reformers were teaching that works were necessary as well, because if good works were not present, that kind of faith was not legitimate. Catholics were basically saying the same thing, just using different words. Let’s just all get along.
It occurs to me that not much has changed since the days of Erasmus. There are many today, even within Free Grace circles, who would agree with Erasmus. Even if we say we are saved by grace through faith alone, it is OK to believe that works are necessary. Many would even agree that the gospel preached by the Catholic Church is a saving message. I wonder if they would agree with Erasmus that the Baptist, Presbyterian, and Bible churches of today are, at the most basic level, unnecessary?
In theory, at least, who was right: Erasmus or Luther?