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

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An engrossing dual biography and fascinating intellectual history that examines two of the greatest minds of European history—Erasmus of Rotterdam and Martin Luther—whose heated rivalry gave rise to two enduring, fundamental, and often colliding traditions of philosophical and religious thought.

Erasmus was the leading figure of the Northern Renaissance. At a time when Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael were revolutionizing Western art and culture, Erasmus was helping to transform Europe’s intellectual and religious life, developing a new design for living for a continent rebelling against the hierarchical constraints of the Roman Church. When in 1516 he came out with a revised edition of the New Testament based on the original Greek, he was hailed as the prophet of a new enlightened age. Today, however, Erasmus is largely forgotten, and the reason can be summed up in two words: Martin Luther. As a young friar in remote Wittenberg, Luther was initially a great admirer of Erasmus and his critique of the Catholic Church, but while Erasmus sought to reform that institution from within, Luther wanted a more radical transformation. Eventually, the differences between them flared into a bitter rivalry, with each trying to win over Europe to his vision.

In Fatal Discord, Michael Massing seeks to restore Erasmus to his proper place in the Western tradition. The conflict between him and Luther, he argues, forms a fault line in Western thinking—the moment when two enduring schools of thought, Christian humanism and evangelical Christianity, took shape. A seasoned journalist who has reported from many countries, Massing here travels back to the early sixteenth century to recover a long-neglected chapter of Western intellectual life, in which the introduction of new ways of reading the Bible set loose social and cultural forces that helped shatter the millennial unity of Christendom and whose echoes can still be heard today. Massing concludes that Europe has adopted a form of Erasmian humanism while America has been shaped by Luther-inspired individualism.

1008 pages, Hardcover

First published February 1, 2018

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Michael Massing

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 106 reviews
Profile Image for Marks54.
1,365 reviews1,160 followers
April 25, 2018
I recently read the Luther biography by Eric Metaxas and really enjoyed it. That is what prompted me to read this dual biography of Erasmus and Luther by Michael Massing. It is a wonderful book that is well written, clearly organized, and thoughtful. Considering the task that the author sets out to accomplish, the book is a real achievement.

Massing has written a dual biography of Erasmus, the Renaissance humanist whom many know from history book references but fewer have actually read, with Luther who needs little introduction after last year’s 500th anniversary of the 95 theses. Dual biographies are especially valuable when there is a clear point of distinction or comparison between the two individuals being profiled - Wilson versus Lenin; Kennan versus Nitze; Churchill versus Orwell. Such is the case with Massing’s book in extreme. This is no less than a history of the tension between faith and good works that set the agenda for how Christianity and church-state relations moved out of the Middle Ages and into the modern age. It is a tension that continues today and a strength of the book is Massing’s efforts at showing how the issues between Erasmus and Luther developed in Europe and then moved into North America through the various great awakenings. The book does a great service in explaining how the different strands of Protestantism developed and spread - and by implication influenced subsequent European history. Massing also provides lots of references to the works of Luther and Erasmus (and others) in case one is interested in following up and reading more. Many of these works, by the way, are still available online for little or no cost to download.

Along the way, Massing provides the stories of these two lives and ties them together with the broader Reformation. For example, the book helps to clarify why the English Reformation under Henry VIII took such a different turn from what happened in Europe. He does a good job on the peasant revolts and in my opinion judiciously moves past the first 30 Years War without getting too bogged down - it is a separate story on its own terms. Massing’s book was particularly helpful to me because of how he covered the linguistic and philological aspects of the conflicts between Luther and Erasmus. I am past the time when I could think of learning Greek, so his explanations are helpful.

This is a long long book, but there is little in it that is unnecessary and much that is worthwhile.
Profile Image for Ryan Boissonneault.
197 reviews2,066 followers
August 16, 2018
I’ll start by saying, if you’re a fan of intellectual history, buy the book—you will not be disappointed. 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 deeds over faith. Luther, the leading Evangelicalist, emphasized the primacy of faith over deeds, 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 myself, 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. 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 is probably here to stay, 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 and 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.
Profile Image for Brian Eshleman.
839 reviews106 followers
September 14, 2018
A little bit of a if it’s Tuesday it must be Belgium experience through some of the most momentous intellectual terrain in history. Very few nuggets brought cause for pause in themselves, although the author‘s vocabulary range is outstanding.
Profile Image for Scriptor Ignotus.
512 reviews181 followers
February 13, 2022
Fatal Discord is not only a dual biography of the two most prominent intellectuals of the Reformation period; it is an entire theological and political history of the Reformation—as well as its Biblical and medieval antecedents—recapitulated in the comparative lives of Luther and Erasmus, and in their fateful literary confrontation.

In one corner stood Erasmus: Christian humanist, heir of Jerome, James, and Cicero; the illegitimate son of a priest who revolutionized Biblical exegesis and midwifed modern textual criticism with his groundbreaking (though flawed) translation of the New Testament, which drew from older Greek manuscripts and thus subverted the Latin Vulgate and its centuries of editorial accretions; a near-total pacifist—he transmitted to modern readers Pindar’s observation that “war is sweet to those who have no experience of it”—and an internationalist, who was the first to describe himself, in a letter to Huldrych Zwingli, as a “citizen of the world”; satirizer of Papal pomposity and champion of the simple, humane teachings of Jesus.

In the other stood Luther: the crude, abrasive, and astonishingly prolific miner’s son and Augustinian friar who spawned one of the great cultural revolutions of Western history; devotee of Augustine and Paul; proclaimer of sola scriptura (under a distinct Erasmian influence) and justification through faith alone (though Luther and Augustine misread Paul by conflating justification and salvation); translator of the New Testament into an earthy German (which arguably took more liberties with the scriptures than did the Vulgate, which both Luther and Erasmus came to reject); forefather of German nationalism; evangelist for the liberating power of Christ crucified.

Both men were fierce critics of the opulence and corruption of the Church. Both sought a return to first principles and advocated a model of Christian life that was simple, modest, and true to the example of Christ and the Apostles; a life motivated by true inner devotion rather than the mere outward performance of ritual. One illustration of this is the inspiration that Erasmus and Luther both drew from the Dutch scholar’s rediscovery of the Greek word for “repentance”: metanoia. The word refers to a “turning around”, a redirection of one’s attention, a total inner and outer conversion of the one who repents; quite a different connotation from the poenitentia of the Vulgate, which was traditionally interpreted to refer to the sacrament of penance—i.e., going to confession.

Luther was a great admirer of Erasmus, who was about seventeen years his senior, and relied heavily upon his New Testament as he formulated his own criticisms of Church practices. Indeed, the very first two of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, his famous attack on the sale of indulgences, refer to Erasmus’s aforementioned “Greek” understanding of repentance:

"1. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
2. This word cannot be understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, that is, confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy.”

In the early days of the Lutheran controversy, Luther and Erasmus were widely understood, by their admirers and critics alike, to be closely aligned. A common expression of the time held that “Erasmus laid the egg that Luther hatched,” suggesting that Luther’s Reformation was merely the natural outgrowth of the Erasmian project of applying humanist textual criticism to Scripture with the aim of resurrecting primitive Christianity. Erasmus, for his part, initially returned Luther’s admiration, but became increasingly alarmed at his radicalism and the militancy of his followers. Erasmus wanted to reform the Church from within in a kind of elite-driven, international, cosmopolitan project; but Luther and his detractors were constantly pushing one another into taking ever more extreme positions in a process that brings to mind the radicalizing tendencies of social media today.

Reading this book has convinced me that the internet is, in some sense, much older than we typically think. Many of the disturbing features of today’s online world—the vitriol, the cliquishness, the jockeying for attention, the “outrage mobs”, the demand that everyone have an opinion about everything, and the interpretation of silence as a sign that one is on “the other team”—were fully present in the discourse of the Reformation, in which the European intelligentsia engaged in ever more acrimonious and polarizing debate through the medium of the printing press. There’s something almost uncanny about imagining Luther alone in the Wartburg dashing off sixteenth-century hot takes. We’re all in the Wartburg now. There’s also something uncanny about the monumental efforts undertaken by the baroque Church to suppress Luther’s movement and gain control over the burgeoning communications revolution. It was perhaps the first time in history when a single institution sought to completely seal off the flow of information—but as we’re seeing today, it would not be the last. “The Cathedral” is alive and well.

In this age of extremes, poor Erasmus stood in the middle of the road and got run over. The last great humanist, Erasmus opposed both the pre-humanism of the medievals, who sought to subject human freedom to the power of the institutional Church, and the post-humanism of the evangelicals, who sought to subject it to their understanding of the sovereignty of God. As such, he resisted enormous pressure to declare himself for or against Luther until he was left with no other choice. Their great debate on the subject of free will reflected a theological tension that stretches back into the New Testament itself: that between faith and works; between Jesus as the teacher of the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus as the scapegoat of Calvary. The modern world erupted through the chasm between Jesus the teacher and Christ the savior.

It would be difficult to read this book without coming away with a profound, if sometimes begrudging, respect for both of these men and the legacies they created. Though I suppose in both intellectual and temperamental terms I’m more of an Erasmian than a Lutheran, it’s hard to be unmoved by Luther’s courage and bravado, or to avoid cringing at Erasmus’s vacillations during one of the West’s most critical intellectual crises. On the other hand, Erasmus perhaps displayed a quieter courage of his own when he sought to maintain his independence and integrity in an environment that allowed little room for either.

In the short term, Luther won the day. His Reformation swept through Northern Europe while Erasmus faded into obscurity, denounced as a lackey of the Catholic Church by Protestants and as a proto-Protestant by the Catholic Church (his debate with Luther did not stop his entire corpus from being placed on the Vatican’s Index of Prohibited Books). Nonetheless, Erasmus has made a comeback in Europe since the Second World War, admired for his pacifism, his cosmopolitanism, and his belief in human freedom and reasoned dialogue. Luther’s star has faded in Europe, but Massing believes that his legacy has thrived in America after being brought to her shores by the likes of John Wesley.

Though there are relatively few Lutherans in the United States, the Pope of Wittenberg has made his presence felt in the American evangelical community, and especially among the Southern Baptists, who carry on Luther’s emphasis on the saving power of the individual’s faith and the sacrality of his own personal encounter with Scripture. Though much has been made of the Calvinist legacy in America, Massing holds that Luther is the true theological forebear of the most politically-potent forces in American Christianity due to his emphasis on individual conscience over the communal piety exemplified by the Calvinists of colonial New England.

So Luther and Erasmus live on—now with an ocean between them.
Profile Image for Gary  Beauregard Bottomley.
1,007 reviews601 followers
April 24, 2019
You ever wonder why 80% of white Evangelical Christians support Donald Trump. Erasmus is a humanist and Luther (and Trump’s Evangelical base) are anti-humanist. This book shows why the reformation is still relevant to today and connects the dots from then to today by considering the past that made up the then through the relevance of today.

Luther starts what he called the Evangelical Church in Germany (German: Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland) and allows for a strain of anti-intellectualism to take root, denounces the peasants and their peasant revolt since power from above trumps the individual, makes every man a priest thus no one a priest, and devalues the individual’s dignity by polluting it with original sin and usurping it with God’s Grace above all else, appeals to ‘scripture alone’ as long as it is understood narrowly through his own myth interpretation lens and allows for no deviation from his privileged norm, and most of all sees the world through Augustinian terms especially that ‘man is born in sin’ and human nature is corrupt ever since ‘the fall of Adam and Eve’ and original sin is a stain that we all have since birth. Those are all characteristics of Luther’s anti-humanism and are a variation of beliefs shared by most of Trump’s white Evangelical Christian supporters. To understand the racism of today as espoused by Trump it’s often best to understand the anti-humanist of yesterday.

Erasmus supported moderation, tolerance, dignity of the individual, good works matter, and free will of the individual, and believed that understanding needs grammar, semantics, syntax, context and philology especially in understanding scripture. All these items would go towards characterizing a humanist. In addition, all of them would be antithetical to what the anti-humanist, or typical (80%) white Evangelical would tend to believe one way or another today.

Luther believed that we are not the ‘master of our will but its slave’ and our salvation comes from God’s Grace (or ‘God’s favor’ as Tyndale would translate it and is quoted in this book to have said). Aristotle (and Erasmus) would say that the builder learns to build good houses by striving to build a good house and practicing and learning and fine tuning his art, while Luther will say that good houses are built by good builders who become good only through God’s grace.

This book will connect the dots and contextualize the main characters with the background of the reformation always front and center and the author will nicely connect the foundation necessary in order to understand the story he is telling. For example, he brings the scholastics into his story and will give a summary of the key players by connecting them to the reformation events. Not to ruin the story for you, Luther wants a return to Augustine and doesn’t really care much for the scholastics and thinks that Aristotle is only okay for those who want to go to hell, and Erasmus in general loves the scholastics except he believes they value contemplation too much and wants to put the emphasis back on good works, good practices and good thoughts. Those ‘damn Pelagians’, they always think they are so much smarter than the anti-humanist as exemplified by Luther or Trump. Luther’s most favored insult at Erasmus was to call him a ‘Pelagian’, and I would highly recommend ‘Bondage of the Will’ by Luther which I had read shortly before reading this book in order to understand today’s modern Evangelicals, anti-humanist, conservatives and Trump’s fascist supporters.

Of the two recent books I’ve read on the Reformation, this one and ‘Reformations: The Early Modern World’ by Eire, I would recommend Eire’s book. It’s not fair to this author, Massing, to compare the two books because Eire wrote a flawless book with deep understandings and is most certainly a superior teller of history. At times I felt like Massing would be telling me things that he only had understood from reading what other people had said about what they had read as when he would talk about Kant, for example. Eire was always a master of his subject. In addition, I felt that Massing was not telling me anything that I had not read elsewhere since there didn’t seem to be any originality to this text. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and Massing does tell a good story but just not with much historical originality.
Profile Image for Socraticgadfly.
1,041 reviews336 followers
April 4, 2018
There's not a lot of new stuff here for me, especially on the Luther side, but the dual biography concept, when done well, can stimulate some 'aha' and Massing generally does well.

The two biggies on differences are first, one of personality and temperament. Erasmus' irenic style never could have led a Reformation and Luther never could have calmed his down enough even to be the best of organizers of what a Reformation needed in terms of management.

As a result, Erasmus in general was more kindly disposed to human fraility and at least occasionally meeting people halfway. Had he been in Luther's shoes, he never would have treated Melanchthon as shoddily as Luther sometimes did.

As an aside, Massing also gives a good base-level explanation of how differences between Luther and Zwingli, in terms of how they developed their reformations differently, were sociological as much as theological.

I did learn a few tidbits, one of which I could have learned in Lutheran seminary, had it been taught there. And that is that Luther's polemics against the Jews weren't just a late-life, poor-health issue. They started with his lectures on the Psalms years before the 95 Theses. He later tamped them down, after the Reformation took off, in hopes of converting Jews. Until they didn't.

And, it was Karlstadt, not Zwingli, who first questioned the "Real Presence" in the Eucharist, and he did so on the basis of Greek grammer and not metaphoric speech common to Greek, German and English. Karlstadt pointed out that the "this" in "This is my body," can NOT refer backward to "bread" because it's a different gender in Greek. That, too was never mentioned in Lutheran seminary, probably because, although Luther railed against Karlstadt for this, he never refuted it — because, of course, he couldn't.

There is one notable error here that doesn't affect the flow, and a matter of framing that kind of does.

Given that the second big difference between Luther and Erasmus was on free will, and that BOTH had an Augustinian background, it would have been nice for Massing to include a little bit more about just how "minor" of a saint Augustine is seen as being in the East. He does talk a small bit about Orthodoxy's take on Augustine, but not a lot.

The outright error? Paul never claimed to be a Roman citizen, contra Massing. The unknown author of Acts claimed it for him.
Profile Image for Joost Nixon.
165 reviews6 followers
May 23, 2023
This is a sweeping attempt to set the debate between Erasmus and Luther in its context, and to make the case that they are father-figures of respective worldviews alive today. Erasmus represents tolerance, broad-mindedness, and free inquiry and is registered in the EU. Luther represents a fidelity to Scripture as the only infallible authority, and is represented by American evangelicals today.

I quibble with Massing on some bits regarding evangelicals, but am grateful for the context. He has some valid points and observations, and he's good at introducing relevant players as far back as Jerome and Augustine, and add far forward as Moody, Graham, and 20th century German liberal scholarship.

4.5 stars.
Profile Image for Justin Conder.
31 reviews20 followers
October 20, 2018
A dense and meandering read about distant 16th century theological writers, their polemical feuds and massive egos, Massing's work nevertheless comes across surprisingly relevant (see link below). If you, like me, disdain Martin Luther's crude zeal and advocate Desiderius Erasmus' high-minded humanism, this book may be a humbling experience. Instead of an elegy to Erasmus and a "Protestantism that might have been," Massing plays a less harmonious historical tune. In our time of populist upheaval and revanchism, consideration should be given to why the earthy, parochial fury of Luther won out over the seemingly genteel, cosmopolitan wisdom of Erasmus. Old caricatures cast shadows here and there (they are hard to avoid), but the temperaments of these two men and the Reformation their dispute influenced shines through. It seems this discord is with us still in subtle ways, though with stakes that make The German Peasants' War pale in comparison.

Profile Image for Gideon Yutzy.
215 reviews27 followers
April 10, 2021
Wonderfully told. Compares the impact of Erasmus on Western thought with the impact of Luther. I don't think I've ever read a historical work that employed such rich use of language (metaphor, imagery, turn of phrase, etc).

I think the author had a clear bias toward Erasmus, but he wove in so much original writing from both men that it was hard to disagree. Luther was so anti-semitic you literally have to fast forward some parts (if you're listening to the audiobook, that is, which is 34 hours long, just so you know).
Profile Image for Toby.
636 reviews16 followers
September 18, 2020
This mammoth double biography of Erasmus and Luther is written by a journalist with a wide field of interest, though no specialism in Reformation History. This brings with it very big advantages and disadvantages, and your view will be coloured by whether you feel one outweighs the other.

The advantages are its sheer readability. To read through over 800 pages without a moment’s boredom demonstrates the work of a master story teller. Erasmus's life really was pretty dull, and Luther's, whilst having its moments of excitement, is nevertheless bound up with some fairly esoteric issues of Christian theology. Massing does an excellent job of painting a picture of these two contrasting and contrary men and fills in a lot of the background to their times and thought..

That is another advantage: unlike other biographies of Luther which assume that the reader will have a working knowledge of the Sixteenth Century religious milieu, Massing takes nothing for granted. The length of the book is at least part due to the sidetracks that we are taken down as Augustine, St Paul, Jan Hus, Jerome etc. are given their own moment in the sun. Despite having now read four biographies of Luther, I felt that this one was the first that really filled in all the basic details for me.

But there are disadvantages as well. Massing has an agenda, which he is open about. Europe took the Erasmian humanist path, America the Reformed Christianity path and America is the worse off for it. Erasmus is therefore the hero (though not without flaws) and Luther the villain, if not for his own personality but because of the chaos that ensued from his campaign.

From the beginning Medieval is used almost exclusively as a pejorative term. Paris, in 1485 is still a medieval city (as presumably was London, Madrid and Rome), ie. unsanitary and crowded, as though we are to be surprised that the Eiffel Tower and Pompidou Centre are nowhere to be seen. Reuchlin, in his love of languages, is distinguished from the Medievals. John Colet remains a medieval man because he continues to interpret Scripture on its own terms rather than use the classics. Ultimately, Erasmus looks towards the bright Renaissance future whilst Luther looks back into the medieval past. This kind of characterising just won't do.

And then there are the oddities that crop up. Most scholars certainly don't think that Paul's letter to the Romans was dashed off hastily, nor is there a recognised contradiction in the first three chapters of the book (I re-read it, to make sure). The antichrist comes from 1 John, not Revelation. Oecolampadius means "house light", not "shining light."

So a great introduction to two of the most important theologians and linguists of the early modern era but it needs to be read with some caution.
Profile Image for Jonny Parshall.
203 reviews13 followers
December 19, 2018
Dense this book is. And thorough. Too thorough. The title implies it is a narrative on the accounts of Erasmus, Martin Luther, their correspondence, collaboration, and rivalry, and how these interactions shaped Protestantism and the Renaissance. Rather, it is a complete biography of Luther, a complete biography of Erasmus, AND outlines their interactions and how each shaped Protestantism, the Reformation, et cetera, as well as many of the other figures such as Zwingli, Melanchthon, Thomas More, et al, etc.

It is awfully ambitious Massing undertook such a project, as there are so many good works regarding the subject already. Had it been more narrow in scope and focus, it would probably be a finer addition to this preexisting gallery.
Profile Image for Baylor Heath.
203 reviews
July 1, 2022
I’ve been wanting to tackle this beast since it came out in 2018 and I’m glad I finally did. It is a thoroughly comprehensive and just as equally engaging dual biography of Martin Luther and Erasmus which skillfully compares and contrasts their lives and theologies to display how their dueling legacy can be seen in Western culture even today. If you don’t know who Erasmus is (I didn’t) then you already have an idea who won the “fight for the Western mind” — at least initially.

Who won the fight for my mind upon reading it? Well, being exposed to Erasmus’ Christian Humanism was a broadening experience given my background of rigid thinking (“Christian Humanism! That’s an inherent paradox!” I thought at first). Having man, not God, at the center of a worldview cannot be Christian. Indeed, that would be Secular Humanism, but Erasmus is not placing man at the center, just carefully reframing his role and emphasizing his free will, his conscience, and his God-given faculties for inquiring into and living God’s truth. He advocated the reading of classics and, revolutionarily, approaching the divine text as literature in a time where biblical scholasticism reduced Scripture into something to be only dissected into answerable propositions.
Manning also shows how these two medieval men picked up a centuries old battle between Augustine & Pelagius concerning man’s role in his own salvation. Pelagius, Jerome, and Erasmus all leaned toward man being able to live according to God’s commands in of himself, whereas Augustine, Luther, and later Calvin, disputed man was completely incapable of living according to God’s standards without receiving his grace due to his utterly sinful state (God doing for him what he could not do for himself). In this respect, Luther wins over my mind as he emphasizes exactly what makes the good news, Good News (which is why they were calling his movement the New Gospel, even if what seemed to be New was really quite old).

On the other hand, Erasmus comes out on top in being the only leading thinker durning the Reformation without blood on his hands. Luther, Thomas Moore, Zwingli, & Calvin all honestly have abysmal records of condoning or enacting violence in their causes which tarnishes whatever good there is in their good news — whereas Erasmus manages always to be civil and purposely non-violent in a time that can make your stomach turn with its gruesome, senseless accounts of bloodshed.

Well, at any rate, I walk away from this entertaining book a more nuanced thinker around the core doctrines at the center of the Reformation which counts for a lot.

Highly recommend.
Profile Image for Ray LaManna.
539 reviews43 followers
February 7, 2019
This is a very thorough dual biography of the lives and teachings of Erasmus of Rotterdam and Martin Luther. At over a 1000 pages it interweaves all the historical antecedents to the Protestant Reformation and the consequences up to the present time. It's very thorough and easy to read. Massing does a great job with this complicated history. If you want to know about this important period in Western civilization...read this book.
Profile Image for Helen.
61 reviews1 follower
November 13, 2018
I dearly wish I’d had this when I took my senior level history class on the Renaissance and Reformation in undergrad. These aren’t new ideas, but their presentation as a a dual biography brings fresh points to light. Comprehensive. The roots of so much of the modern are here.
Profile Image for Johnny Mettlach.
16 reviews
May 8, 2018
Excellent book (a 4.5 rating). It is a very comprehensive, detailed, all encompassing look at irenic Luther and diplomatic Erasmus and the whole era, how the Reformation flowed out of the monastic culture (education, markets, etc), stimulated modernism and eventually many of today's ideologies, politically and religiously, that result. The alternating chapters on each person highlights their similarities and more numerous differences (especially in temperament, personality, style) and the contrasting view of The Western Mind (including distinct views of conscience, change, church and state, Greek philosophy, religious authority, dealing with conflict or differences, & much more). The details of their individual faiths and formations are key. Far from demonizing the Roman Church or culture of the Middle Ages as a whole, the author nonetheless elaborately describes the rampant political and ecclesial corruption and oppression, all of which are deeply disturbing (how the common people were treated, the 98% of mortals), and thus part and parcel to the upheaval and titanic change that would impact history forever. In particular, I was struck by the massive (up to 20,000 in one) bands of roving people in the Peasants Revolts, as well as Luther's acidic and merciless call for their "slaying" and more (see below), and his theology behind it as well as his equally violent hate for Jews (starting from the very beginning with his very first writings on the Psalms with only a few spared any anti-Semitism, as well as in his second book on Romans). Massing's description of how Luther (and others) interacted (often in contention) with Zwingli, Calvin, (future) Anglicans (Henry the VII), the Anabaptists/Mennonites/etc. (maligned and slaughtered by Protestants & Catholics), Moravians (Count Zinzendorf ), and other sects was very helpful in explaining how various branches of Protestantism formed.
Going through the extensive linguistic (original scriptural languages as well as Latin translations) and philological and philosophical differences between the Luther and Erasmus was revelatory, but it like other topics covered so in depth made the book extremely long (more than 800 pages). I wish he had done a much more thorough job of connecting the current contemporary religious and political climate (of the last 50 years) with the two men and their impact on that era and the rest of history, especially in the West. LUTHER: "Let there be no half measures! Crush them! Cut their throats! Transfix them. Leave no stone unturned! No mercy, no toleration is due to the peasants [attacking castles, churches, & monasteries]; on them should fall the wrath of God and of man...Let whoever can--stab, strangle, and kill the peasants like mad dogs...I advocate the slaughter of the poor captured peasants without mercy...I, Martin Luther, have during the rebellion slain all the peasants, for it was I who ordered them to be struck dead. All their blood is upon my head. But I put it all on our Lord God: for he commanded me to speak thus.." [in 1525, many tens of thousands of German peasants in giant roving bands revolted against longstanding poverty, injustice, & governmental and ecclesial corruption]
Profile Image for Jessica Jin.
141 reviews71 followers
August 7, 2023
initial thought dump, may update later:
🥵the way early theologians were absolutely ravaged by horniness and the way monks literally policed each others wet dreams is pretty funny
😬 makes total sense why everyone was a huge fan of martin luther early in his career because the catholic church was corrupt as hell. but then he kanyes himself as he starts telling the aristocracy to violently put down peasant riots that his ideas (whether he liked it or not) helped incite. he tells the peasants they should suffer like jesus did and... obey the government, submit to the state, twiddle their thumbs at gaping feudal class differences?? he marries a nun immediately after like 200,000 peasants are slaughtered?? he starts spewing some of the most vile antisemitic shit? and then tells some buddy of his he can totally get a 2nd wife and marry some 13yo girl he's obsessed with to avoid divorcing his 1st wife? bro read the room????
⭐️ erasmus seemed like committed, bookish, and crotchety old man who had great ideas but wasn't down be burned at the stake for them like martin luther was, very relatable tbh. like a 16th century "just vote!" tshirt wearer
☪️ one fun fact is that protestantism prob wouldnt have survived if not for islam-- european rulers were so busy fending off the ottomans that they didnt have the capacity to crush reformers!
Profile Image for Daniel Stepke.
111 reviews3 followers
January 19, 2022
I really enjoyed this! It was clear, accessible, and put Luther and Erasmus in truckloads of context, from the Thomists to Tyndale. The major thematic tension was (as the title indicates) between Christian humanism (where the emphasis of the Christian experience is living the good life, reason, the will, and human dignity) and Christian evangelicalism (where the emphasis of the Christian experience is divine grace, piety, devotion, and human depravity). I must say that as the book presented Luther and Erasmus, Erasmus seemed to display real Christianity much better than Luther. If their lives have anything to say, they were both deeply flawed. Truly, man cannot save himself or merit salvation, as Luther says. But at the end of the day, it seems Christians should be focused on truly intending to live the good life with God's help, rather than proclaiming one's devotion without the life accompanying it.
Profile Image for C. A..
117 reviews5 followers
September 5, 2019
While the author is not a historian but a journalist, he does a decent job. The first 95% of the book is gripping and informative. But as the book draws to a close, Massing displays typical anti-calvinism of the "but Servetus!!!" tier. He also ends with an assessment of the 20th and 21st century context of American Christianity, by trying to link Luther or Erasmus to different movements of contemporary society; this last part seems to have been written with less rigour than the rest.
27 reviews
March 5, 2019
Long and about large subject(s) but really well written, so very readable.

Profile Image for John.
131 reviews11 followers
August 7, 2020
Much better than I expected. Sure, it's long, but a lot's at stake. Massing is at his best not only when comparing and contrasting the two minds at work, but in recounting the horrors of the Peasants' War. He gives a great feel for life in that time across Europe, and he clearly narrates an immense amount of research. While it may not uncover any fresh finds, Massing as a popularizer of this complicated era uses his own curiousity to fuel his search into the academic historians' records; he proves well how mistranslations, which could not get the sense in Greek of the Hebrew, and then were compounded in error in Jerome's Vulgate, led early on to Luther's distrust of the Jewish people, and how this rigidity influenced him years before 1517. Erasmus comes across as a canny and cautious scholar, but given his predicament, not taking the side of the firebrands may have well saved his life. And Zwingli's rise to power in Switzerland makes for useful correctives to those who regard him as a minor character then.
Profile Image for Mark.
Author 58 books72 followers
January 4, 2020
Clear and concise (even at 800 + pages) this dual biography and history of Erasmus, Luther, and the Reformation is an excellent introduction to the religious, political, and social drama surrounding the ruptures in Europe that dislodged the old order and initiated the Modern Age. Recommended.

For a fuller review, go here: https://theproximaleye.com/2019/12/31...
Profile Image for Myles.
398 reviews
October 15, 2019
While so much of Michael Massing’s “Fatal Discord: Erasmus, Luther, and the Fight for the Western Mind” is concentrated on the evolution of Christian thought during the Protestant Reformation, my attention kept being diverted to the strange and cataclysmic impact publishing had on European polity during the period.

It was a short leap from the metal moveable-type printing presses of 1450 to the dissemination of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, the “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” in 1517 first nailed to the door of a small church in the backwater of Wittenberg, Germany.

Many, many of Luther’s and Erasmus’ theological tracts were reprinted in the thousands and sold at book fairs across Europe. For the first time church and lay authorities had to react quickly to keep up with the fast-moving opinions of their communities.

And they sure resented it.

I couldn’t stop thinking of the parallels with today when massive self publishing on Twitter, facebook, and Instagram encourage Luther-like bomb-throwers to upend the orthodoxy of the press.

Luther seemed to me like a precursor to Rush Limbaugh, conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, or the conservative doyen Glenn Beck.

Catholic Church fathers correctly as it seems understood the power of the small presses to undermine church legitimacy when these same presses reeled off thousands of copies of Erasmus’ revisions to the then dominant Vulgate Bible, his satire of church functionaries, and Martin Luther’s even more incendiary complaints of the sales of the promises of salvation by church bishops and the Papacy, what were in those days called “Indulgences.”

Quickly following on the heels of translations of the Bible into the vernacular languages came dozens, then hundreds, and eventually thousands of Protestant sects who wanted to own Scripture for themselves.

It wasn’t the first split in the Christian religion. The Eastern Orthodox Church had split off long before. And there had been numerous schisms in the intervening years. And somehow the Roman Church has held on for another 500 years with its obscene wealth, its rituals, and its own hierarchy of orthodoxy.

When I read in the online news services of the recent admission by the Pope of centuries of abuse of young nuns no less than the abuse of young boys, I am smitten by Erasmus’ and Luther’s complaint 500 years ago that celibacy would never control the carnal desires of church leaders. How many children, and how many young women have been abused by the system of secrecy in the Roman Church over that period?

It’s too shocking to contemplate.

But the story in this volume that held my attention strongest was that of William Tyndall, a brilliant classicist, who undertook a translation of the accepted Vulgate Bible into English and left us with some of the great phrases of the English language including “The Lord is my Shepard I shall not want,” “the salt of the earth,” “my brother’s keeper,” “our father which art in heaven,” “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak,” “eat, drink, and be merry,” and “the powers that be.”

William Tyndall was hounded by Thomas More and chased around Europe until finally captured in Belgium and burned at the stake. In a rare show of mercy he was strangled before burned. All for the heresy of reinterpreting a deeply flawed translation of the holy scriptures. And Tyndall was among the lucky ones. Others were burned alive, or had their skin flayed with hot pincers, or were repeatedly raised and lowered into the flames until they died in agony.

Much of Tyndall’s translation found it’s way into the King James Bible barely a century later, long after King Henry VIII broke with the Vatican over its refusal to grant an annulment so that Henry could marry Anne Boleyn.
60 reviews
January 1, 2022
I enjoyed this excellent book. It took some perseverance to get through at times due to detail and length, but it certainly expanded my knowledge concerning Erasmus influence on Luther and the reformation. Erasmus is someone who I was not familiar with at all before I read this book. After reading this book, it became apparent that he is one of the fathers of the reformation.

Personal takeaways
- There is so much to admire about Erasmus. I agree with the author's contention that there was much to learn from his version of Christianity. At a very minimum, he seems a peacemaker who held up the ideal of the simple love of Christ in day-to-day life. This is a trait of Christ that seems entirely lost amid the strong personalities of the reformation and counter reformation.
- Unfortunately, some of Erasmus' tendencies toward moderation seem less inspired by high minded ideals and more influenced by old fashioned politics and cowardice.
- You can also see in this book why and how Luther ultimately stole the limelight. If nothing else, boldness and extremity is more newsworthy then caution, complexity and moderation.
- What if Erasmus would have come out in support of Luther on the things that he agreed with instead of being such a coward. ​How different things could have been though if Luther had a bit more of Erasmus restraint in both his writing and spirit. Maybe he could have restrained some Luther's bad tendencies. And Luther could have given him courage to stick to his convictions.

- Luther deserves his important role in Western Civilization, but he made some incredible blunders as well. Some of these:
1. His support of the doctrine of transubstantiation seems a terrible reason to break with his fellow Protestants and also very strange given his willingness to throw aside thousands of years of Catholic doctrine on other issues.
2. You can make a strong case that Luther's horrible racism and hatred of the Jews, his strong support for separation of Church and State, his strong support for the state political powers over the conscience of the individual were the direct parents of the German Nazi party or at least enabling factors.
3. His commitment to law and order is understandable given what actually ended up happening, but it feels like he went way overboard in his tracts on the instructions to nobles concerning the peasant revolts. These early workers movements were squashed just as they began. Luther deserves the condemnation he has received in siding with the Nobles entirely at the expense of the murder and rape of peasants.
4. Luther's absolute commitment to grace above works may have been needed at the time due to terrible abuse and imbalance. Yet 500 years later, I think many Christians feel that jettisoning works as much as Luther did is problematic and not as scriptural as he intended to be. This is just a tension that must be maintained. It's not resolved in scripture so why should we think we can resolve it.
5. I detest John Calvin. Much in the same fashion, when Calvin perfected Luther's doctrine of predestination something important was lost. When Christianity turns into fatalism, it has become a different religion entirely...just a different type of Paganism or Scientific Materialism. When I read his biography, I see a person with a compulsive, almost psychopathic need for order and perfection at the expense of everything else. He was horrified by his own doctrine of predestination and yet persisted. His actions to maintain his control over the people and doctrine approach the infamy of the Spanish Inquisition in the finality of its judgements and brutality of their punishments.
6. One person can only take things so far, but in my opinion, Luther only scratched the surface of reformation when it comes to the actual practice of Church. As Frank Viola has written very sharply in several of his books, the actual practice of church is so polluted by the Roman influence it is almost irrecoverable and unrecognizable, but Luther started again the practice of examining all things through the lens of scripture and reformers along the way have made great strides to recovering a New Testament church by focusing on informal small groups of believers where the "priesthood of all believers" is upheld.

The section describing how Luther's influence can be felt in American Protestant traditions as diverse as Billy Graham crusades, Southern Baptist, Methodists, and Quakers was spot on: the freedom of the individual conscience before God, the equality of all people before God, the ability of the common person to interpret scripture correctly. These are bedrock principles of both American spirituality and the American experiment itself.
141 reviews3 followers
December 22, 2022
I found this book riveting, even though I could not manage to read it straight through. I got it from the library months ago and have been reading it in large chunks. I have now finished it and re-read parts, and I'm thinking about buying a copy and considering giving copies as gifts.

Before starting to write this review I looked at some of the *, and ** reviews and, as often happens, I think some people weren't reading the same book was. The oddest of these negative reviews (aside from the one saying the book can't be interesting to anyone who isn't religious, to whom I offer my own heathen *****) is the review complaining that Michael Massing doesn't have a central thesis. I think Massing tells us very clearly what he is getting at with the book's subtitle and then at length in the Introduction and even greater length in the final chapter: Origins and Acknowledgements. Massing sees the Fatal Discord between Erasmus and Luther is a lens through which the divergence between the Renaissance and Reformation worldview.

From early days, the followers of Christ preached, discussed, argued, harangued, and fought over doctrine and practice. The scope and heat of these disputes expanded and contracted over the centuries during which what becomes the Roman Catholic Church with a pope seated in Rome, used the sword, superstition, and terror of damnation to consolidate power and material wealth ever more tightly. Beginning in about 1350, another expansion of loud criticism of the Church and its practices began. These critics were brutally suppressed, yet the arguments persisted, growing more harsh and more open in the next century. Erasmus, born 1466, and Luther, born 1483, rose to prominence among the great clamor for change, through their exquisite use of disputation techniques in an era of formalized disputation.

Massing focuses on several key figures in the early church who influenced Erasmus and Luther, and shows how these historical writings are interpreted by successive generations of theologians, most of whom could not read the works in the original languages. Luther and especially Erasmus, were linguists and Massing, a modern journalist, honors their use of original sources.

In addition to theological history, "Fatal Discord" can be read as an exploration of the rapidly changing world in which these men lived. I was particularly fascinated by the role publishing houses – large and small – played in shaping the world. Thousands of copies of books were shipped every. Books were favored gifts and, along with letters and tracts, crossed Europe in weeks. As always, I am astounded by how often people travelled around, often on foot. Scholars and students wandered everywhere.

To place Erasmus and Luther among their forebears and peers, Massing offers mini-biographies of a vast number of the real people. In the case of early Church luminaries, we learn a bit about their historical-cultural world, and why their works persist into the modern world, often overcoming disdain and neglect of prior ages. Massing includes some wonderful tidbits along the line. I am delighted to learn that Paul's clarification that followers of Christ don't have to follow Jewish law was largely to reassure converts that they didn't have to get circumcised. Well OK then, no snip.
There is no question that reading a book of this size and density requires an investment of time and attention. If you are undecided, read the Introduction and Origins and Acknowledgements. Massing's discussion there is an invitation to read. I was hooked by the 2018 NYT book review and by Massing's lecture on the book on YouTube at watch?v=bOC5WVCnw_k

NB: I think this book would be difficult to finish as an ebook. It's just too long. But the ebook form would be useful because the index (in the hardback, anyway) is not great. Because I was reading in chunks and because there is such a huge amount of information, sometimes I could not remember a phrase or reference. The index was unhelpful in the 3 or 4 instances I needed to use it. Fortunately Dr. Google and my own ability to link a phrase to something else, got me through.
Profile Image for Jimmy.
1,041 reviews39 followers
June 21, 2018
This is an incredible book on the biography of both Martin Luther and Erasmus. Though I have read several different books on the Reformation it seems every time I pick up another title on Luther or the Reformation I continue to learn different aspects of the Reformation. This work is no different.
What makes this work different than other works on the Reformation is that the author compared and contrasted Martin Luther with his contemporary Erasmus of Rotterdam. While most people today might not know as much about Erasmus of Rotterdam as Martin Luther nevertheless during Luther’s day Erasmus was a celebrity and at times was even more well known than Luther (especially in their earlier years). You see how both men had different personality, disposition and yet also interacted with each other in writing and it wasn’t always pleasant. Still in a strange twists they both live in the shadow of one another with Luther dependent upon Erasmus’ Greek New Testament which was the means Luther was able to study the New Testament as a primary source while for Erasmus he was also living under the shadow of Luther since he was often asked to define his theological view in relations to his view of Luther. This really annoyed Erasmus. For those who know their history Martin Luther would break from the Roman Catholic Church over the issue of justification and recovery of the Gospel while Erasmus stayed with the Roman Catholic Church.
What I really enjoyed about the book is how the author described the interaction not just only between Erasmus and Luther but also these two men’s interactions with various other historical figures during that time such as how Tyndale was influenced by Erasmus, Thomas Moore’ bitter attacks on Luther (before this book I assumed Moore lived during a different time period), Zwingli’s interaction with Luther and Luther’s interaction with Calvin such as Luther’s reaction to Calvin’s view of Lord’s supper. Quite fascinating in the book’s discussion about Luther’s colleague Karlstad. While Karlstad has caused much harm to Luther’s cause especially with the Peasants revolt nevertheless I learned from this book that when Karlstad’s own life was threatened by the peasants he moved in to Luther’s home after he was married. Luther was a much more forgiving man than I could have been. Sadly the book’s discussion about the Peasants Revolt was one of the sadder part of the book.
I appreciated reading various parts of Luther’s life as described in the book. The author did a good job capturing Luther’s theatrics with his debate such as his debate with Eck. The book also talked about Wittenberg and what part was more hagiographic concerning the “Here I stand” speech/quote. From this work I also learned that Luther was actually a friar and not a monk. The author was adamant about this point and he also noted that Luther wouldn’t have been able to travel, to teach and to do ministry outside the monastery if he was a full-fledged monk instead of a friar. Point taken.
With all that has been said I must say that the author unfortunately had a weird view of the Bible. He is more liberal in his theological leaning. That is he didn’t necessarily have a high view of Scripture. For instance the book asserted that Paul wrote Romans awkwardly with dangling sentences and weird word order. Having studied Romans in the Greek the last few years I think Paul was quite deep in his theology in Romans and I’m more and more convinced every word he penned is theologically rich and where it is syntactically placed is significant. All that is to say I don’t think the author is an exegete so you got to keep that in mind when you read the book. Overall though the historical work on the two key figures of the sixteen century ecclesiastical and theological scene was informative, factual and interesting though with the size of the book it can be quite intimidating and a reading project that takes a while to finish.
494 reviews145 followers
January 9, 2019
Massing, a journalist by trade, takes on a massive historical project, to trace the parallel development of Martin Luther and Erasmus in the 16th century. Extensive notes are included suggesting a lot of research is behind this detailed mostly factual account. The format is rotating chapters of each philosopher, with infrequent intersections where Luther reads something of Erasmus’, and the two start corresponding.
Massing follows the philosophers in mostly chronological order with occasional historical digressions to earlier thinkers like Augustine, Paul, or Seneca who influenced Luther or Erasmus. Neither philosopher comes off well; Luther seems beset by almost paralyzing guilt and appears to be driven by the desire to somehow ensure he doesn’t go to hell. His ultimate grasping at the idea that it is through faith and not deeds that one is saved appears to be a direct reaction against his own fear of sin. He extrapolates this to teachings of the church that focus on doing something (like buying indulgences) in order to be saved, which he strongly abhors and revolts against. (The chapter the most fully explains Luther’s adoption of this belief is “the gates of paradise”). Luther believed that man is, by nature, sinful and cannot be “saved” through such deeds. This went in direct contradiction to church doctrine and brought all kinds of trouble to Luther. The book traces his gradual transition from posting his 95 theses through his adoption of what becomes Protestant thinking and the council of Trent.
Erasmus seems stuck on a notion of knowledge being intrinsic in Latin and Greek to the expense of all else. Erasmus does not get the attention that Luther receives in the book (Massing explains that there is less evidence available for Erasmus). Erasmus provides tepid support for Luther until he finally takes him on in his treatise, The Freedom of Will, by arguing against Luther’s position that man does not have free will (Chapter, A shower of stones). This division, between free will and bondage to God’s predestination, suggests Massing prefigured much of philosophical thought to come. And, if his account is to be believed,it was the rejection of Erasmus’ more balanced focus that led to the next 100 years of religious turmoil.
What I liked about the book is less the treatment of the two philosophers but just in the tracing of humanist history and its influences through this century. The book ends with a brief discussion of Luther’s current influence. Massing also does a good job of drawing out the complexities of Luther’s position which seems to be not simply faith above all else, but that faith is ultimately what determines God’s grace.
For an overview of the many voices from Machiavelli to Thomas More, this seems like a good choice. It just gets a bit too detailed at times. Massing is a good story teller though and seems to be basing his narrative on textual support, and the prose moves quickly.
Profile Image for Nelson.
466 reviews12 followers
October 17, 2021
Accessible generalist history that doesn't quite make good on its subtitle. Billed as a twin biography of Luther and Erasmus, it certainly won't replace the standard works in those categories. But its emphasis on the ways these two lives intertwined opens welcome avenues of reflection that helps further illuminate both thinkers. In Massing's telling, neither man comes off as especially likable. Erasmus' refusal both to shit or get off the pot infuriated reformers and counter-reformers alike. His perpetual wish for a via media between fire-breathing change and the sclerotic ways of a clearly corrupt church hierarchy stemmed not merely from self-preservation but also a genuine, lifelong commitment to peace and gradual reform. In Massing's telling, he comes off as rather more self-concerned; the sharp complaints of the reformers are thus largely confirmed in this narrative. Yet surely Erasmus' liminal state with respect to the church hierarchy required a safety first approach. It's ironic that his earnest labors to produce a more accurate Bible—labors that did much to further the reformers' causes generally and Luther's aim specifically—ended up making him persona non grata to, well, just about everybody. If Erasmus here emerges as a fussy, self-concerned go-slow, Luther eventually appears as a fire-breathing, profane, anti-Semitic blowhard incapable of the slightest tact in the name of harmony or peace. Uncle Marty is here in all his crapulous, defecatory, vibrant verbal excess. And it's not a pretty portrait. All of which is to say this is not exactly a cheery read. As told by Massing, its a comedy of self-concerned errors, except the subsequent loss of life and erosion of faith was, if anything, tragic. Where Massing really shines is in his frequent sidebars explaining one relevant figure from the past or present after another. One gets useful thumbnail sketches here of folks from Jerome to Spinoza, as well as careful elucidations of Pelagianism, double predestination and other theological curiosities, at least to general history readers. The wish to tie Erasmus to humanists generally is not an entirely unconvincing mood. Linking Luther to contemporary fundamentalists via a wishful misreading of Wesley and Methodism is tendentious at best and utterly unconvincing at worst. Even the least-educated prosperity gospel fundamentalist would shriek in horror, for instance, at consubstantiation, to say nothing of Luther's views on marriage (polygamy anyone?). In other words, the speed walk through history after the deaths of Luther and Erasmus is easily the least convincing or useful part of this. The general reader will benefit most from the careful and thorough contextualization of the eventual conflict between Luther and Erasmus over free will.
Profile Image for Ann.
Author 14 books76 followers
June 10, 2018

At about a 1,000 pages, Fatal Discourse is not a light read. It is, however, a thorough and rewarding one for those interested in how, as the subtitle suggests, the western mind came to be. Though long and detailed, it is quite readable.

The book includes the main figures who have shaped western Christianity, from the ancient church fathers like Jerome and Augustine through today’s Southern Baptists. The main characters are the Dutch humanist, Desiderius Erasmus, and the German reformist, Martin Luther.

However, the lives of scores of others also are chronicled. They include theologians, national leaders, and what would be termed political activists today.

Several processes, followed by the author, meshed to create the world of Erasmus and Luther. A beginning awareness of ordinary men and women and their rights or lack of them moved some, especially coupled with the growing corruption of both church and secular leaders.

Newly discovered Biblical manuscripts in Greek, earlier than the authorized Latin Bible, the Vulgate, indicated different meanings for some authorized texts.

And finally, the printing press allowed new ideas to spread, akin to the revolutionary effect of the internet today.

The author presents Erasmus as a humanist, a more reasonable personality. Erasmus wanted an examination of the new ideas. He championed reform of the Roman church. However, he had no desire to leave that church, and he vehemently opposed the sickening and terrifying violence.

Concerning Erasmus, the author states: “He wondered what it was ‘that drives the whole human race, not merely Christians, to such a pitch of frenzy that they will undergo such effort, expense, and danger for the sake of mutual destruction.’”

Luther was more incendiary. His approval of the crushing of the peasant uprisings, as well as his anti Semitism, are horrifying.

Perhaps Luther might have been remembered only for his simple calls for reform if the people in power had dealt more sympathetically with his initial ideas. Instead, Luther reached a turning point after he was labeled a heretic.

Today, we grow increasingly shrill in cursing and labeling each other. Accusations are magnified by the ubiquitous internet. Fatal Discourse could provide a cautionary history, to the end that the bloodlettings of the 15 and 1600's will not be repeated.

Profile Image for David Jacobson.
267 reviews13 followers
June 29, 2019
This intellectual history of the Reformation is an absolute page turner. Published to commemorate the five-hundredth anniversary of Luther's 95 theses, it goes far beyond merely recounting that epochal figure's exploits.

For the first few hundred pages, in fact, the story centers not on Luther, but on Erasmus, the Dutch humanist whose greatest contribution was to bring the tools of textual criticism to bear on the Bible. By going back to the original Greek and Hebrew texts, he found that key passages in the Latin Bible could have multiple meanings. At the time, it was believed that the translators of the Vulgate Bible into Latin had been directly inspired by the Holy Spirit, and so Erasmus's alternate translation put him sufficiently on the avant garde that he had to tread carefully with the Catholic authorities for the rest of his life.

Eventually Erasmus's translation of the New Testament gets into the hands of Martin Luther, and this is where the famous historical action picks up. Luther believed that the Bible is the end-all and be-all in terms of dogma and that he—and not the Catholic church—had found the right translations and interpretations of key passages, especially relating to the role of "works" (i.e., good deeds) in salvation. Not caring who he upset, he published prodigiously, excited the German people, and the Protestant movement quickly took off beyond his control.

At this point, the book follows the highs and lows of the Reformation—the splintering into new sects, the rise of Zwingli and Calvin, the Peasant War, etc.—but also the waning influence of Erasmus. Erasmus agreed with Luther in opposing the excesses of the Catholic church (he wrote early on that "monasticism is not piety"), but he did not agree that good deeds count for nothing. The two finally faced off, in widely published essays, over the issue of free will.

In two parallel epilogues, the book considers the legacies of the two men, finding that, while Luther obviously founded a massive religious movement, his Europe is now the domain of humanist Erasmus. Luther's legacy, it is argued, is in evangelical America.
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