Sunday, July 02, 2006

Erasmus and Post-Conservatism

Having finished with Braaten, I am now reading Luther’s Bondage of the Will. For those that don’t know, Luther’s Bondage of the Will was written against Erasmus’ Freedom of the Will. In the historical/theological introduction, editors Packer and Johnston do a fine job of establishing the context for Luther’s work. Erasmus, arguably the finest scholar of his day, was a humanist who had his own grievances against the church. Early on, as the Reformation was just getting started, it was supposed that Erasmus and Luther would join forces. Such was not to be. Erasmus, though a Greek scholar of unquestionable renown, was not a theologian. In fact, he found the scholastic theology of his day to be distracting and largely irrelevant to the life of the average Christian. He was a pragmatist and a moralist and largely uninterested in questions of theology. Erasmus was after reform, but he had no ability to see the connection between ecclesial reform and theological reform. For Erasmus, one of the main problems with the church was that it gave too much attention to theology in the first place. Far better was the simple life of faith, of love and good deeds toward God and neighbor. And if he was annoyed with the theology of the scholastic theologians, he was horrified by Luther’s theology.

For Erasmus, Luther’s appropriation of Augustine’s doctrine of sin and grace seemed to render moral reform and good works an impossibility. Far better, Erasmus argues in his Freedom to simply not ask questions about such matters. Luther responds with a resounding chastisement, chiding Erasmus for being unwilling to deal with theological issues and for too quickly claiming “mystery!” about what God had clearly revealed in his word.

Without drawing too fine of a parallel, I have noticed that post-evangelicalism/conservatism has followed Erasmus’ distaste for theological reflection, chiefly in relation to soteriological matters such as the freedom of the will. Like Erasmus, it seems that much of the post-conservative world has lost patience for the traditional evangelical (Reformation/Augustinian) debates regarding the nature of grace, election, and the freedom of the will, focusing instead on pragmatic issues such as social justice, and ecclesial life. In fact, the primary place where post-conservative theologians have done a tremendous amount of work is in theological method, reaching conclusions that discourage further theological reflection. Without a doubt, the post-modern turn, embraced in many ways by post-conservatives—has called into question the viability of the task of theology all together. Doing what Luther does in Bondage of the Will (and what Augustine, Calvin, Edwards and evangelicals have historically done) is largely viewed as a modernistic and naïve. Far better to focus on pragmatic issues—on the life of good deeds toward God and neighbor—then to get distracted by soteriological issues. (Of course, this characterization is broad and sweeping and not a reflection of all who fall under the label “post-conservative.”)

Luther was right. The road to ecclesial reform lies through theological reform. Erasmus’ preoccupation with pragmatism and his refusal to sort through soteriological issues such as grace and the freedom of the will did little to help the Church. May we not repeat his mistake.

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