Review of Fatal Discord: Erasmus, Luther, and the Fight for the Western Mind

Fatal Discord by Michael MassingI’ll start by saying that if you’re a fan of intellectual history you will almost certainly enjoy Fatal Discord. Michael Massing is a fantastic writer and this work, despite being over 800 pages, is always interesting and never dull.

The Amazon description presents the book as a dual biography of Martin Luther and Desiderius Erasmus, but it also contains several biographical sketches of prominent figures like St. Augustine, St. Paul, Thomas More, St. Jerome, St. Thomas Aquinas, Petrarch, Lorenzo Valla, William Tyndale, and more.

In chronicling the lives of Luther, Erasmus, and others, Massing provides a complete intellectual history of the Reformation and immerses the reader in the life and culture of 15th and early 16th century Europe.

The main drive of the book is the contrast between and development of two strains of thought: Christian Humanism and Christian Evangelicalism. Erasmus, the leading Christian Humanist of the era, emphasized individual moral autonomy, unencumbered rational inquiry, and the primacy of acts over faith. Luther, the leading Evangelicalist, emphasized the primacy of faith over works, the Bible as the inerrant word of God, and the path to salvation through faith in Christ alone.

You can think of the difference this way: assuming you believe in God, what do you think would most please Him?

  1. A life spent praising God, reading the Bible, maintaining piety, confessing sins, and participation in liturgical services, or
  2. A life spent helping others in the example of Christ, embracing pluralism and toleration, and interpreting scripture through the power of your own reason.

The Evangelical Christian would choose the first, the Christian Humanist the second. As a non-religious humanist, I have an obvious bias for the second choice, but it would seem somewhat strange for God to prefer mere thoughts, ceremony, and praise over a life spent actually helping others and engaging in benevolent deeds.

There is, in fact, scriptural justification for the humanist position. For example, James 2:14-26:

“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”

Jesus himself gave the commandment, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Luke 10:27), and prioritized caring for the sick and helping the poor.

Admittedly, due to the inconsistencies of the Bible, you can find scriptural precedence for just about anything, and Luther did just that, especially in Paul. Much of Paul’s writings portray an Evangelical bent; Here is Romans 5:1-2:

“Therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God.”

This is why Paul exalted the story of Abraham and Isaac; Abraham’s willingness to murder his own son is the ultimate expression of faith over works, whereas the humanist would draw the opposite conclusion: that Abraham should have been punished for his willingness to harm his child (works over faith).

This tension between Paul and James, works and faith, would play out in the thinking of Luther and Erasmus and would produce the Christian Humanism/Evangelicalism divide we still see today.

My personal preference would be to see religion replaced with a more rational ethical system like secular humanism, but this is unlikely, at least in the short term. Humanity has a strong disposition to believe in the supernatural, and in terms of our ultimate origins to prefer any explanation to no explanation at all.

Since religion in this sense will probably remain with us, the best form it can hope to take is expressed in the views originally proposed by Erasmus, where the drive of religion is in works and deeds and individual autonomy, and where the more absurd, barbaric, and fundamentalist parts of the Bible are ignored or rejected. If Massing’s work helps to spread that message, then this book may turn out to be more useful and powerful than even those of the New Atheists.





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