What are some comparisons and contrasts between Erasmus of Rotterdam and Martin Luther in their attitudes and roles to the reform of the Catholic Church in the 16th century?

Expert Answers
teachsuccess eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Hello! Although both Erasmus and Martin Luther wanted to reform the Church, both disagreed on the correct methods of bringing about the desired changes. Below, I list the contrasts between Erasmus and Martin Luther in their attitudes and roles to the reform of the Catholic Church in the 16th Century.

1) Erasmus favored a less militant approach to reform. He was open to persuasion and to debate. Luther was more dogmatic (immovably opinionated). Each accused the other of having the right intentions but the wrong solutions.

2) Erasmus did not want to sacrifice peace within the Church; he hated discord and contention. On the other hand, Luther insisted that if the Church was to be cleansed of all impurities, an uncompromising allegiance to absolute dogma was a necessity. Luther felt that Erasmus did not possess the necessary characteristics or aptitude to be an effective reformer. He scoffed at Erasmus' apparent lack of earnestness and Erasmus in turn, was horrified at Luther's brash insensitivity.

3) Theological differences: Both Erasmus and Luther disagreed on the theological definition of free will. Erasmus did not want to rock the boat too much; he felt that the authority of Scripture and the authority of church tradition were of equal consequence. On the other hand, Luther believed in Sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone) and sola fide (justification by faith alone).

Luther attested that salvation was the work of God alone. He believed that the idea of free choice was an illusion, and that the imperfection of human nature rendered any claim to salvation by works impossible. Meanwhile, Erasmus believed in theological synergism. This is the concept of God and man working together for one's soul salvation.

This theological difference was at the heart of the conflict between Erasmus and Luther during the Reformation. Both men were bitterly opposed to the other's definition of salvation. To argue their points, Luther wrote The Bondage of The Will, and Erasmus, The Freedom Of The Will.

teachersage eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Both men were distressed by abuses in the church. Erasmus wrote In Praise of Folly to satirize clergy abuses. Luther likewise decried such abuses as selling indulgences for sins that had not yet been committed. Both believed changes needed to come quickly to Roman Catholicism. Luther also, at least initially, greatly admired Erasmus's learning and scholarship, including his knowledge of Greek. 

The two men, however, differed in their ideas of free will. Erasmus believed that humans were active participants in their own salvation. People, he argued, choose whether or not to respond to God's call. To Luther, this was heresy. Humans, to him, were too mired in sin to do this. Salvation is solely from the will and action of God, he said. The Fall of man from grace for him overshadowed mankind's inherent goodness in being made in the image of God. 

Luther, because of the abuses of the Church, believed that Church doctrine had to be based solely on the Bible. Erasmus, on the other hand, was willing to include Church tradition as part of the body of knowledge pointing to truth.

In the end, Erasmus was unwilling to break with Rome, while Luther was. Erasmus was overall fine with Church theology as orthodox or theologically sound. His concern was with what we could call orthpraxy or faithfulness of practice. He felt the Church was not following its own moral doctrines. Luther was concerned that the Church's orthodoxy or theology itself was flawed. It was not just its practices that were corrupt: so were some of its fundamental beliefs, such as in the efficacy of works as a path to salvation. He believed that works were only a response to salvation, not a means to it. To him, all the good works in the world were worthless if God had not decided to save you. 

Luther was ultimately willing to break with Rome in a way Erasmus was not. Luther was a revolutionary, Erasmus a reformer.

thetall eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Although both Erasmus and Luther agreed on the need for reformation in the Roman Catholic Church, they remained divided as to the aspects of the church that needed change. Luther was more concerned with reformation aimed at doctrine and practice, while Erasmus focused on changes needed in the morality of the church. 

Luther's ideas were fully bound by the Scripture. On the other hand, Erasmus was inspired by reason over Scripture. 

Erasmus suggests that man's salvation is a collaborative effort between man's free will and God's grace. However, Luther has opposed this stating in his work that salvation is the sole responsibility of God. Luther argues that with free will, man does not need grace; thus, he denies free will.

Erasmus further suggests that by having free will man automatically merits salvation, but Luther opposes the assertion, stating that man does not merit anything but instead deserves punishment.