Erasmus vs. Luther, intellect vs. faith

From James Anthony Froude’s lectures on Erasmus and Luther, in Short Studies on Great Subjects:

Erasmus considered that, for the vulgar, a lie might be as good as truth, and often better. A lie, ascertained to be a lie, to Luther was deadly poison — poison to him, and poison to all who meddled with it. In his own genuine greatness, he was too humble to draw insolent distinctions in his own favour; or to believe that any one class on earth is of more importance than another in the eyes of the Great Maker of them all.

Well, then, you know what I mean by faith, and what I mean by intellect. It was not that Luther was without intellect. He was less subtle, less learned, than Erasmus; but in mother wit, in elasticity, in force, and imaginative power, he was as able a man as ever lived. Luther created the German language as an instrument of literature. His translation of the Bible is as rich and grand as our own, and his table talk as full of matter as Shakespeare’s plays.

Again; you will mistake me if you think I represent Erasmus as a man without conscience, or belief in God and goodness. But in Luther that belief was a certainty; in Erasmus it was only a high probability — and the difference between the two is not merely great, it is infinite. In Luther, it was the root; in Erasmus, it was the flower. In Luther, it was the first principle of life; in Erasmus, it was an inference which might be taken away, and yet leave the world a very tolerable and habitable place after all.

There can be little doubt that Froude considered Luther to be the greater of the two men, and Luther’s relation to God and goodness to be the better one — and equally little doubt that Froude himself was much more akin to Erasmus in this regard.


As for myself, “belief in God and goodness” is not with me a single belief, but two more-or-less independent beliefs — and I am Erasmian with respect to the one but Lutheran with respect to the other.

Nothing can be more certain than the reality of good and evil. That some things ought to be and other ought not, is as undeniable as that some things are and others are not.. While the specifics of what precisely is, and what precisely ought to be, are often matters of uncertainty, the validity of the concepts of existence and goodness — as fundamental aspects reality, irreducible to anything else —  is a matter of absolute certainty. Through 12 years of atheism, I never doubted that, nor have I ever been able to take seriously the joke-philosophy of “moral relativism” which so often accompanies irreligion.

The existence of God, on the other hand, has never been more than a probability — estimated at various times in my life, based on the available evidence and my interpretation of it, as a very high probability or as a very low one — but always infinitely distant from Luther’s absolute certainty. Even at the height of my religious belief, I always thought of myself as someone who was fundamentally more akin to so-called “freethinkers” than to most religious people; it was just that I happened to have had certain experiences, providing me with evidence to which most freethinkers were not privy, and had therefore reached different conclusions. Given the ease with which I transitioned to atheism when exposed to new evidence, I think I was correct in this analysis of myself.

Recently, philosophical reflection has led me once again to reevaluate the probability of God’s existence to the extent that theist is probably now a more accurate label than atheist (just barely more accurate), but I remain about as far from certainty as it is possible to be.  To borrow the tagline from Seijio Arakawa’s blog, “The fool says in his heart, ‘and why not?'” I suppose I believe in God to about the same degree that I “believe” that there is life on other planets. That is, if I had to guess, I’d probably guess “yes” — but I’d still be absolutely astonished to discover firsthand that my guess had been right!


People tell me — have told me repeatedly — that if I would only follow my belief in goodness to its logical conclusion I would find that it entails belief in God. Apparently I’m just not smart enough to understand that particular chain of reasoning, though God knows I’ve tried.


Filed under God, Philosophy

7 responses to “Erasmus vs. Luther, intellect vs. faith

  1. The inference that moved me to belief in a personal God was that for there to be good and evil that I ought to live by and for there to be synchronicity that indicated what I ought to do etc – there had to be a person-God who had concern for me personally.

    I just could not see why an im-personal universe (of physical forces and/or an abstract deistic kind of God etc) would have any concern over me personally – in particular would have some kind of proper path laid out for me, or preferred choices for me personally.

    For me to have a place in reality, for there to be meaning and purpose and a universe that was not indifferent – I felt (and still feel) that there must be a personal God; and indeed the loving Jewish/ Christian God (a God who was not Love would have no concern for me except maybe as a means to whatever was his end – but I would have no reason except expediency to go along with that kind of God’s purposes.)

    So, once I had reached this point of reasoning, it was a straight choice between utter alienation and a conviction that all meaning, purpose and relations were pure delusion – or else becoming a Christian…

    (Becoming a Christian on the basis that Judaism is essentially racial – I tend to think Judaism is right for Jews, but only for Jews. Somehow I cannot see that observant Orthodox Jews benefit salvifically – although equally they are not harmed, and the path is easier, hence the Gospel being Good News – from being converted to Christianity.)

    (And I always saw Mormonism as Christian, indeed a superior kind of Christianity; and my reservations are only about my own failure to be observant and the lack of a monastic/ ascetic tradition of sanctity alongside the patriarchal – although I now strongly suspect that the monastic/ ascetic alternative has – in these latter days – all-but died out from all denominations in the West.)

  2. I can’t help you trace the logical connection between belief in morality and in God, because they both seem one and the same.

    What I see is this. Good and evil, moral light and moral darkness, Truth and Lie, beauty and ugliness, justice and injustice self-evidently exist. We experience them directly. But forces or qualities, to have existence, have to have a certain kind of effect. It would be meaningless to speak of gravity, of things being ‘heavy’ or ‘light,’ if some things didn’t sink and others didn’t rise. One of the essential properties of morality is that it drives us to fix or at least condemn what is wicked and to reward or at least laud that which is righteous. But much good and evil cannot be fixed by us. Nor can it even be held in memory, because we die.. So I have a strong intuition that morality existing entails a being who ultimately rights every wrong and rewards every right–or at least a being who observes and remembers all and forever praises or condemns it–or at least that all of us continue on forever with perfect recall of all that we have ever done and ever will do.

    Similarly, part of our basic experience of morality is the experience that more perfect information and more perfect judgment is needed to truly do what is right. But we also know that we aren’t capable of it. So for morality to exist as it in actual fact *does exist*, as we know from experience, there must be an entity who is.

  3. *the lack of a monastic/ ascetic tradition of sanctity alongside the patriarchal *

    Curiously enough, there is some chance (not a great chance, given prevailing secular conditions) that Mormonism is developing a monastic/ascetic path for homosexuals. It insists on their lifelong celibacy, which creates a structural need for them to have some kind of different purpose. It is also difficult, and given Mormon teaching and Mormon practice, an obvious sort of continual sacrifice. Consequently, I have noticed that some Mormon gay men have started to view themselves as being called to engage in their struggle for the edification of the community, and have been started to be treated b;y the community as if that were their role.

  4. I’m not entirely sure I follow you, Adam. What is and what ought to be are ontologically distinct, and I don’t see how “X ought to be” implies “X eventually will be” (unless, of course, we assume the existence of God; but that would be begging the question).

    You say that things must have some effect in order to exist, and that morality drives us to “fix” evil — but even if we are unable actually to do what morality drives us to do, the drive itself is an effect of morality. If an effect is necessary in order for morality to exist, its psychological effect should be sufficient to establish its existence even without a God. However, this whole line of thought presupposes that morality “exists,” which is problematic since, again, what is and what ought to be are ontologically distinct.

  5. I had understood from your post that your accepted the (imho, obvious) existence of morality.

  6. I’m sorry. The limitations of human language make it very difficult to talk about this without causing confusion. I’ll give it another go, though I’m not sure I’ll succeed in clarifying anything.

    Obviously morality is real — obviously it is true that some things ought, and others ought not, to be — but these truths are not truths about existence (where “existence” refers to what actually is, as opposed to what ought to be). The two propositions “men ought to be perfectly honest” and “no men anywhere actually are perfectly honest” are not mutually contradictory, and in my judgment both are true. The latter is a statement about existence; the former is a statement about morality, which is ontologically distinct from existence.

    Basically, the point I’m trying to make is a corollary of Hume’s. Just as it is logically impossible to derive an “ought” from an “is,” it is logically impossible to derive an “is” from an “ought.” God is an “is,” and morality is an “ought” — hence it is not valid to derive the one from the other.

  7. Morality is about ‘oughts,’ and by admitting the existence of morality (the ‘isness’ of morality), you have already crossed the hard Humean boundary.

    It seems to me that your approach allows morality to affect the universe only to the extent that it motivates human action. But human action could be similarly motivated whether or not morality actually existed, as long as humans believed it existed. Which means that the existence of morality is immaterial under your schema.

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