The Praise of Folly

The Praise of Folly Martin Luther

Martin Luther was one of the most influential men in history; his ideas upended centuries of the Catholic Church's dogma and domination and inaugurated a series of religious conflicts that some believe heralded the end of the 'Dark Ages.'

Luther was born to a German peasant couple on November 10th, 1483 in Eisleben, part of the Holy Roman Empire. His father was a miner and smelter, and he soon moved the family to Mansfield, a large mining town. Hans Luther wanted his son to be a lawyer and sent him to school at an early age. After several years of learning Latin and rhetoric, Luther enrolled at the University of Erfurt. He studied grammar, logic, rhetoric, and metaphysics as he progressed to his Master of Arts degree. His particular influences were Aristotle and William of Ockham. He had almost completed the necessary work to become a lawyer when he was caught in a terrifying thunderstorm and called out to St. Anna to save him, declaring he would become a monk. As he was not harmed, this religious experience led him to enter the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt in 1505. Although this decision upset his parents it was something he felt compelled to do, as he had been unsure about his salvation for some time previous.

At the monastery, Luther continued his search for assurance until finally instructed by a fellow monk to concentrate on Christ alone. He was diligent in his prayers, fasting, and pilgrimages, and wrote "If anyone could have gained heaven as a monk, then I would indeed have been among them." Overall he was quite frustrated with and disappointed by his time in the monastery. In 1511, he transferred to a monastery in Wittenberg, completed his doctoral degree in theology, and became a professor of biblical theology at the University of Wittenberg. Through his lectures at Wittenberg, Luther began to discover the assurance that had eluded him and to flesh out his perspectives on the scriptures. It became clear to him that God's grace was a gift; justification was by grace alone, not works.

One of Luther's most famous quotes is that "reason is the devil's whore." It is easy to conclude, then, that he was not a supporter of philosophy, but this is not necessarily true. As the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains, "Reason can be an aid to faith in that it helps to clarify and organize, but it is always second-order discourse...Philosophy tells us that God is omnipotent and impassible; revelation tells us that Jesus Christ died for humanity’s sin. The two cannot be reconciled. Reason is the devil’s whore precisely because it asks the wrong questions and looks in the wrong direction for answers. Revelation is the only proper place for theology to begin. Reason must always take a back-seat."

In 1517, Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the door of the University's chapel, igniting the Protestant Reformation. The Theses excoriated the sale of indulgences and explicated his views on grace. Luther wrote the Heidelberg Disputation in 1518 to further clarify his position and articulate his Theology of the Cross. Although ordered to recant by the Papal Legate, Thomas Cardinal Cajetan, Luther refused. He continued to write, lecture, and debate on his views; this led to the pope's issuance of a bull threatening Luther with excommunication. Luther burned it publicly, and was thus officially excommunicated in January 1521. When he was summoned to the Diet of Worms that March, he again refused to recant and was placed under Imperial Ban.

As he was now in a precarious position, he remained at the Wartburg Castle until May 1522, when he returned to Wittenberg. He kept teaching, left the monastery, and married Katharina von Bora. He died following a stroke in Eisleben on February 18th, 1546.

Though Erasmus's reputation would ultimately be worsened because of his reaction to the Protestant Reformation (he refused to either fully support Luther or to take the side of the Catholic Church), he was confronting the same fundamental questions that Luther did. Erasmus was by no means the iconoclast that Luther was, but his work does seek to challenge the status quo, particularly in his condemnation of the theologian class of his time. In the same way that Luther professed that we should know Christ alone and not show an over-reliance on reason, The Praise of Folly ultimately concludes that our salvation is due to faith in God's grace and not in our own foolish human abilities to interpret it. It is helpful, therefore, to consider Erasmus's work in light of the much more controversial manifestation of its ideas that was soon to follow with Martin Luther.