I came across the following in class today while reading The Bondage of the Will with our eighth graders. It struck me as remarkably timeless – or at least timely for our own day despite being written nearly 500 years ago.
If you aren’t familiar with the work let me set the scene: Luther is responding to Desiderius Erasmus’ On Free Will in which Erasmus had criticized Luther. In his work Erasmus had written the following (on which Luther latches with his typical tenacity):
“I find so little satisfaction in assertions that I would readily take up the skeptics’ position wherever the inviolable authority of Holy Scripture and the Church’s decisions permit…I gladly submit to these authorities in all they lay down whether I follow it or not.”
It will aid understanding if we define assertions (as Luther himself did at length in his book). The quickest summary I can offer of what is meant here by assertion is this: “Positive statements of religious doctrine.” Assertions are statements like “Jesus is Lord” or “There is one God who exists in three persons.” Erasmus wants to avoid those whenever possible. Luther, obviously, doesn’t think that is a good idea:
“In a word, what you say comes to this: that you do not think it matters a scrap what anyone believes anywhere, so long as the world is at peace; you would be happy for anyone whose life, reputation, welfare or influence was at stake to emulate him who said ‘if they affirm, I affirm; if they deny, so do I’ & you would encourage him to treat Christian doctrines as no better than the views of human philosophers — about which, of course it is stupid to wrangle & fight & assert, since nothing results but bad feeling & breaches of outward peace. ‘What is above us does not concern us’ — that is your motto. So you intervene to stop our battles; you call a halt to both sides, and urge us not to fight any more over issues that are so stupid and sterile.
By so doing you merely let us see that in your heart you cherish a Lucian, or some other hog of Epicurus’ heard, who, because he is an atheist himself, finds in all who believe in God and confess Him a subject for secret amusement. Leave us free to make assertions and to find in assertions our satisfaction and delight; and you may applaud your Sceptics and Academics – till Christ calls you too! The Holy Spirit is no Sceptic, and the things He has written in our hearts are not doubts or opinions, but assertions – surer and more certain than sense and life itself.”
How relevant is that to a day where so many wear as a badge of pride their refusal to acknowledge doctrinal distinctives in their practice of the Christian faith (as if that can even be done)? Erasmus sounds like he could be speaking as a representative of a myriad of groups whose only confessed doctrine is the avoidance of doctrinal confessions. Even more he completely turns the whole process of being discerning about Christian truth over to his chosen religious authority – much the same way that people sit comfortably under unbiblical preaching every Sunday from a person they have deep affection for because trusting the person is easier than the hard work of comparing what is said to Scripture.
Rather than avoiding “assertions” Luther argues we should love truth.
“The Christian would rather say this: ‘So little do I like skeptical principles, that, so far as the weakness of my flesh permits, not merely shall I make it my invariable rule steadfastly to adhere to the sacred text in all that it teaches, and to assert that teaching, but I also want to be as positive as I can about those non-essentials which scripture does not determine; For uncertainty is the most miserable thing in the world.”
 AKA Erasmus of Rotterdam
 Despite the two earlier sharing similar concerns regarding the Roman Catholic church; Erasmus eventually concludes that Luther is too radical and a break with Rome would be too drastic.
 Lucian of Samosata, a second century satirist who made sport of Christians – most notably in his work titled Passing of Peregrinus.
 I’m quoting from the translation of The Bondage of the Will created by J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston and thus retain their spelling. Skeptics for Luther represent those who never actually get around to saying anything because they are so busy asking questions – a reality that reveals the pointlessness of their system. For more information click here.