Erasmus, the Ambiguity of Scripture, and the Tyranny of Man’s opinions
- “Though it has been overshadowed by the engagement on the will, an additional major issue in Luther’s Bondage of the Will [a.k.a. De Servo Arbitrio or simply ‘DSA’] concerns the clarity of Scripture. Seeking to protect the integrity and power of human choice, in his Diatribe Erasmus had claimed that the Bible is ambiguous on key matters. In reply, Luther asserted its clarity.”
That quote is the opening sentence of a paper delivered by Rev. Dr. James Nestingen (NALC) at the Lutheran Free Conference that was held on the MLC campus in November 2011 (bold and underline emphasis is mine). The title of his paper was “Biblical Clarity and Ambiguity in The Bondage of the Will”. I was personally present for the reading of this paper at the Conference, along with reactions delivered by Rev. Scott Murray (Vice President, LCMS) and Professor Joel Fredrich (WELS, Martin Luther College), which were essentially appreciative of Dr. Nestingen’s paper.
And I must commend the Conference for their choice of Dr. Nestingen to cover this topic. If anyone cares to do an internet search for information about Nestingen, he will find that Nestingen is Professor Emeritus, Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN, and has apparently been conservative enough throughout his career to have been considered, at least by some, a thorn in the side of the ELCA. Furthermore, he is a recognized Luther scholar. But what makes his insight so interesting, and useful, is the liberal context in which he spent his career and to which he applied his studies. The ELCA had opened itself up to the perspectives and sensibilities of secular and unregenerate culture, while, again under the guise of offering a Gospel “relevant for Christian living,” its message and ministry devolved to a “Third Use” form of moralistic social activism, consistent with those Worldly perspectives and sensibilities. In other words, the issues raging in the ELCA, to which Dr. Nestingen applied his studies, and to which he applies his analysis of Luther’s Bondage of the Will relative to the perspicuity of Scripture, are very much the same issues raging in greater society today, which impact us everywhere outside the walls of our church buildings, and threaten to enter our Church through our exposure to these issues everywhere else. Professor Fredrich briefly touches on this observation in his reaction paper, confirming for the reader that the observations and applications Dr. Nestingen makes are probably out of reach for WELS scholars – they would never think to make them on their own, simply due to lack of exposure to the issues. Thus, Dr. Nestingen's insight on this topic was much appreciated by me and others.
After covering two of Luther’s preliminary arguments in Bondage of the Will, Dr. Nestingen begins with the issue of ambiguity vs. perspicuity:
- “[T]he assumptions of the arguments [Erasmus] employed against the reformer have become so dominant in public culture that they seem inescapable. So searching out the implications of Luther’s replies concerning the clarity of Scripture has to proceed at two levels, one in relation to the historical conflict itself, the other in relation to the victorious heritage of humanism in these times.
“To begin with, Luther’s preliminary arguments expose the assumptions that drive Erasmus’ argument throughout. From the start, Erasmus assumes sufficient detachment from Scripture and the authoritative traditions of the church to choose skepticism as an available alternative. He is the agent, surveying the range of claims before him, discerning their relative value. Having taken such a position for granted, Erasmus’ goal is to preserve his options. Just as he picks and chooses among truths presented to him, in his own mind he will preserve his alternatives before God.
“Thus Erasmus, in illusion if not in reality, remains sovereign... he stands aloof as arbiter of Scripture, the faith of the church and what falls most appropriately on the ears of the peasants. The major premise of the argument controls the conclusion — from the beginning, Erasmus is the acting subject.
“Further, the preliminary argument demonstrates Erasmus’ appraisal of authority. It is essentially negative, setting limits without offering anything significantly positive — the authority of law as opposed to gospel. So it limits and confines without any acknowledged promise or benefit...
“Thus, finally, Erasmus’ freedom is negative. It is an innate quality of the will that asserts itself over and against the authorities that encompass and seek to limit it, not a positive gift or bestowal granted in a life-determining relationship with its saving Lord. Consequently, the self has no alternative but to seize on ambiguity — the absence of any compelling significance or meaning — as though it were liberty. No wonder Luther later described Erasmus as ‘Christless, Spiritless and cold as ice’” (pp. 5-6, bold emphasis mine).
- “Because of the power of sin, ‘All men have their hearts darkened, so that even when they can discuss and quote all that is in Scripture, they do not understand or really know any of it.’ Thus, ‘the Spirit is needed for the understanding of all Scripture and every part of Scripture’” (pg. 5).
- “[T]he internal perspicuity of Scripture is not a matter of reason but of faith that has been worked by the Holy Spirit... This begins with a death... and it continues in a daily dying and rising. This death eliminates the self as actor... The gospel is Christ’s work now carried through by his Spirit... bringing the faithful into the rhythm of dying and rising with him...
“Thus internal clarification of the gospel involves continued proclamation and administration... As the gospel creates faith, faith returns to the word daily and afresh. Ambiguity in this context becomes intolerable, threatening to undermine what has become life-defining. But clarification in faith is not merely remedial — it is a joyous renewal in the promises and gifts of the gospel. ‘This is what makes our theology certain,’ as Luther wrote in the Galatians Commentary, ‘it takes us outside of ourselves and brings us to rest in Christ Jesus’” (pg. 9, bold emphasis mine).
And such church organizations, insofar as they open themselves up to worldly sensibilities, share fully with the world in these Erasmian conclusions:
- “Contemporary uses of Erasmus’ argument for ambiguity follow a similar pattern... Only the measurable, quantifiable and repeatable can be considered factual or truthful; everything else, unable to meet such standards, falls into the category of values or personal opinion. In effect, what Charles Saunders Pierce called ‘the argument from personal tenacity’ has become normative [i.e. ‘it’s true because I say so,’ added Dr. Nestingen as he read this paper]. There literally is no law regarding personal and inter-personal relations — there are just choices.
“In this context, by such standards, the claim that biblical law is ambiguous goes without saying. Ancient, it is by definition out of touch with contemporary realities. Patriarchal, it was conditioned by an age in which male-female relationships — as currently defined by the privileged — were by definition inappropriate. With these and similar objections, the assertion of ambiguity requires no further explanation or defense. It is an assumption that needs no further investigation and brooks no challenge” (pg. 9, bold and underline emphasis mine).
“For this reason, in the mainline churches where the argument for ambiguity has been deployed, the next step has not been the one a reasonable person... would suggest. Because by contemporary definition the self cannot move beyond the self-assertion evident in the use of any form of standard, there’s no point in further examination of the arguments. Bondage to the self represents a given, an a priori which makes further examination pointless. In fact, Erasmus for all of his vaunted cultural significance, has become something of an antique. Only theologians talk about free will anymore. In a cynical reversal, while the heirs of Erasmus reduce the gospel to an appeal — speaking of faith as one alternative among many — the culture describes what the law has condemned as predestined and so beyond any choice...
“For the church, appeals to the supposed ambiguity of the biblical text bring an end to any further conversation. Students of Scripture can cite any number of passages that, at the level of external clarity, require further study. Such investigation is the logical next step, and entirely reasonable. But when a church body invokes ambiguity to legislate a particular reading of passages, the possibility of any other reading has been officially eliminated. The authority of the Scripture has been taken over by its interpreters to enforce their commitments. Imperially silenced, those who disagree, who hold to the biblical priority set by the Formula of Concord, have been effectively excluded, literally unchurched” (pp. 9-10, bold and underline emphasis mine).
But it is time for you to comment.
- Have we opened ourselves to the unregenerate and anti-biblical thought patterns of post-modernism? Have we at least been less than watchful for the osmosis of such ideologies from the World?
- Do we see in our own midst the tactic of appealing to Scripture’s “ambiguity” on display?
- Does the acceptance of various anthropocentric aberrations of the Church Growth Movement, including Sectarian Worship, depend, at least in part, on an appeal to “ambiguity” and the license that it grants?
- Does the advocacy of certain translations of the Bible appeal to “ambiguity” – “ambiguity” that we really never knew was there before, but which seem to have been revealed to us in the peculiarities of the post-modern perspectives rampant in popular culture?