Fatal Discord

Erasmus, Luther, and the Fight for the Western World

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Michael Massing
  • New York, NY: 
    , February
     1008 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The acclaimed journalist Michael Massing—former executive editor of Columbia Journalism Review, co-founder of the Committee to Protect Journalists, and MacArthur fellow (1992)—is best known for his writing on contemporary politics, media, and international affairs. Massing’s most recent literary endeavor, though, is not about Donald Trump, but Desiderius Erasmus (1467?-1536) and Martin Luther (1483-1546). Given the salacious political climate in America over the last two years, why would such an acclaimed journalist spend hours upon hours buried researching and writing a 1008-page book on 16th century religious debates? For Massing the debates between Erasmus and Luther are not relegated to early modern Europe, but are alive and well today in the worldview of American evangelicalism (Luther) and European humanism (Erasmus). The present dual-biography not only seeks to capture the drama of these figures’ lives, but to promote Erasmus’s approach to being in the world as a more robust alternative to Luther’s. While the modern comparison gives the study its sharp edge, it makes for a rather tendentious historical read. But read it does: Massing’s dual-biography competes with and, at times, even excels the lyricism and drama of Roland Bainton and Richard Marius.

Massing’s Luther is an intolerant fundamentalist who stressed doctrinal purity over peace—that is, he is a proto-American evangelical. Luther’s Christ came to bring a sword and division, where Erasmus’s Jesus came to bring peace and concord. Luther’s religious and social intolerance most clearly come across in Massing’s treatment of Luther’s anti-Judaism and the 1525 Peasant War. Building upon the recent work of scholars like Kirsi I. Stjerna and Brooks Schramm, Massing insists that Luther’s anti-Judaism should not be relegated to his later 1540s Judenschriften, but was, in fact, fundamental to his early theological development as a whole. His chapter “Self-Righteous Jews” (chapter 10) is a unique interpretation of Luther’s theological development in the early Psalms Lectures in which scorn for Jewish striving combined with Augustinian humility to produce a new vision for Christian spirituality based on faith alone. The theme of anti-Judaism is taken up again in how Luther’s translation of the Hebrew Bible sought to de-Judaize the text (577-78, 754-55). Luther’s later infamous treatises against the Jews are then not in disjunction with his earlier writings, but are byproducts of his growing animosity and hatred towards people of other religious traditions whether Muslim, Jew, or Catholic. Therefore, Massing suggests that no conference is complete today on Luther without a serious consideration of Luther’s anti-Jewish writings and their impact on the Holocaust (813-14). On the Jews and Their Lies should be a serious impediment to any future Luther Renaissance. The depiction of Luther’s anti-Judaism is a window through which to see the general intolerance of Massing’s Luther. On this point, much of the narrative of the book builds to the 1525 Peasant Revolt and Luther’s advice to the German princes to “smite, slay, and stab” the Peasants (651). 

Massing’s Erasmus, on the other hand, was a forerunner of the Enlightenment who stressed the humanity of Christ, an ethical approach to Christianity, pacifism, and the vision of a pan-European union. If Luther’s church Father was Augustine (or at least the later Anti-Pelagian one), then Erasmus’s was Jerome-the-scholar. Whereas Luther stressed faith in doctrine that stemmed from the divine nature of scripture, Erasmus approached scripture as a human text in need of editing. Erasmian humanism, says Massing, inaugurated a turn from a worldview that placed God at the center of the universe and cast humanity as God’s sinful dependents. Similarly, Erasmus built a spirituality based on imitating the human Jesus; Luther, on the other hand, built a spirituality based on faith in Christ crucified for our sins. Therefore, the true progeny of Erasmus are European Enlightenment thinkers like Kant, Voltaire, and Spinoza. For Massing, the clash of Luther and Erasmus represents two conflicting potential worldviews today: Erasmian-humanism and Lutheran-evangelicalism. Humanism promotes the humanity of Christ, sees the Bible primarily as a fallible human document, and stresses the common bonds of humanity.  Evangelicalism stresses God’s majesty and Christ’s divinity, and insists that the truths of scripture are incontestable. On this point, Massing offers a re-interpretation of the impact of Luther on America that counters the more prominent view that favors the Calvinist tradition.

For me, Fatal Discord has been the most engaging historical read of 2018. It is a delight to watch Massing at work. Nevertheless, from a historical perspective the book disappoints on a few fronts. The unapologetic modernist agenda lends to a style that is quite presentist and tendentious in nature. Since Heiko Oberman, medieval and early modern historians have worked hard to reconstruct Luther as a late medieval Augustinian friar. In fact, some of Massing’s primary interlocuters like Volker Leppin and Christine Helmer have contributed to this work. Massing’s consistent description of Luther’s religion as one of individual conscience based on the Bible alone reads later developments back into the source. The same could be said about Massing’s stress on Erasmus’s focus on the human rather than the theistic elements of Christianity. Massing’s stylized writing also sometimes skews the historical evidence. For instance, the correlation of Erasmus with Jerome causes Massing to completely omit the equally important impact of Origen. It also bewilders me how despite his overt modernist agenda Massing continues to refer to God and humanity as male (34, 40, 51, 65, 80, 95, 123, 133, 142, 148, 238, etc.). Historians will have a hard time with the system of endnotes, which makes Massing’s sources frustratingly hard to track down. There are also numerous typos in the book (29, 32, 69, 243, 257, 508, 625). With these critiques in mind I can recommend Fatal Discord as an engrossing, provocative, and important read. It is especially important in how it evidences the continued relevance of 16th century religious debates for making one’s way through life today.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Samuel J. Dubbelman is a doctoral student in the History of Christianity at Boston University.

Date of Review: 
September 22, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael Massing is a former Executive Editor of the Columbia Journalism Review and a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books. His work has also appeared in the New York Times, the Nation, the Atlantic, and the Los Angeles Times.


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