The Best Introduction You’ll Ever Read

Luther’s introduction to his masterful work on total depravity is perhaps the most brilliant introduction to a book you’ve ever read. Some background, a man called Erasmus was persuaded by the various powers that were to write a book on free-will and direct it at Martin Luther, trying to undermine Luther’s stance on the gospel. Luther had grown up sympathetic to Erasmus, Erasmus had after all, started the work that led to all modern translations of the Bible from Greek of which Luther’s German translation was one. Erasmus though was not the man of God that perhaps people first thought he was. Here is Piper’s fair description of the difference between the two.

Erasmus does not live or write in this realm of horrible condition and gracious blood-bought salvation. He has the appearance of reform in the Enchiridion, but something is missing. To walk from Erasmus into Tyndale [and also Luther] is to move (to paraphrase Mark Twain) from a lightning bug to a lightning bolt.

Piper then goes on to cite David Daniell’s words in his biography of Tyndale.

Something in the Enchiridion is missing…. It is a masterpiece of humanist piety…. [But] the activity of Christ in the Gospels, his special work of salvation so strongly detailed there and in the epistles of Paul, is largely missing. Christologically, where Luther thunders, Erasmus makes a sweet sound: What to Tyndale was an impregnable stronghold feels in the Enchiridion like a summer pavilion.

Which leads us, finally to Luther’s introduction and the greatest example of “I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed” in all of Christendom.

Martin Luther, to the venerable D. Erasmus of Rotterdam, wishing Grace and Peace in Christ.

Nobody expected venerable Erasmus, that I should take so long to answer your Diatribe on ‘Free-will’. For hitherto, I have not only appeared to embrace willingly opportunities of this kind for writing, but even to seek them of my own accord. Some one may, perhaps, wonder at this new and unusual thing, this forbearance or fear, in Luther, who could not be roused up by so many boasting taunts, and letters of adversaries, congratulating Erasmus on his victory and singing to him the song of Triumph — “That Maccabee, that obstinate assertor, then, has at last found an Antagonist a match for him, against whom he dares not open his mouth!”

But so far from accusing them, I myself openly concede that to you, which I never did to any one before: — that you not only by far surpass me in the powers of eloquence, and in genius, (which we all concede to you as your due, and the more so, as I am but a barbarian and do all things barbarously,) but that you have damped my spirit and impetus, and drained my strength before the battle; and that by two means. First, by art: because, that is, you conduct this discussion with a most specious and uniform modesty; by which you have met and prevented me from being incensed against you. And next, because, on so great a subject, you say nothing but what has been said before: therefore, you say less about, and attribute more unto ‘Free-will,’ than the Sophists have hitherto said and attributed: (of which I shall speak more fully hereafter.) So that it seems even superfluous to reply to these your arguments, which have been indeed often refuted by me; but trodden down, and trampled under foot, by the incontrovertible Book of Philip Melancthon “Concerning Theological Questions:” a book, in my judgment, worthy not only of being immortalised, but of being included in the ecclesiastical canon: in comparison of which, your Book is, in my estimation, so mean and vile, that I greatly feel for you for having defiled your most beautiful and ingenious language with such vile trash; and I feel an indignation against the matter also, that such unworthy stuff should be borne about in ornaments of eloquence so rare; which is as if rubbish, or dung, should he carried in vessels of gold and silver. And this you yourself seem to have felt, who were so unwilling to undertake this work of writing; because your conscience told you, that you would of necessity have to try the point with all the powers of eloquence; and that, after all, you would not be able so to blind me by your colouring, but that I should, having torn off the deceptions of language, discover the real dregs beneath. For, although I am rude in speech, yet, by the grace of God, I am not rude in understanding. And, with Paul, I dare arrogate to myself understanding and with confidence derogate it from you; although I willingly, and deservedly, arrogate eloquence and genius to you, and derogate it from myself.