Category Archives: Martin Luther

Did Erasmus lay the egg that Luther hatched?

Erasmus of Rotterdam
Erasmus of Rotterdam, by Hans Holbein, Public Domain,

When Desiderius Erasmus, a Dutch scholar and former monk, wrote The Praise of Folly in 1509, he satirized his world and called on bishops and popes to follow the example of Christ.

The young Martin Luther may have seen Erasmus as a kindred spirit in his call for reform of the Church. After Erasmus published a new Latin translation of the New Testament in 1516, Luther appreciated the Dutch scholar even more.

Now Erasmus was the world’s most famous scholar, and watched the Reformation unfold after Luther’s posting of his 95 Theses.

Erasmus wrote “Luther is so great that I shall not write against him. I hope that all the tumult Luther has stirred up will, like a drastic medicine, somehow bring about the health of the Church.”

But Erasmus and Luther parted ways in the conflicts about religious doctrine. In his 1524 The Freedom of the Will, Erasmus insisted that humans have free will to choose between good and evil.

Luther replied in his 1525 On the Bondage of the Will that humans have free will in all non-spiritual matters, but after the Fall of Man, can’t choose to please God.

Their disagreements escalated. Eventually Luther wrote that Erasmus was “the worst foe of Christ that has arisen in the last thousand years.”

When monks accused him of “laying the egg that Luther hatched,” Erasmus replied that he had expected “quite another kind of bird.” Erasmus had hoped for peace and a purified Church. He remained loyal even when the Church resisted reform—refusing the path of Luther and the Reformation movement.

Was Erasmus guilty as charged?

Gutenberg’s Gift to Renaissance and Reformation

Johannes Gutenberg portrait
By de Larmessin – Scanned from “Die großen Deutschen im Bilde” (1936) by Michael Schönitzer, Public Domain,

Johannes Gutenberg began his life in 1400 as a merchant’s youngest son in Mainz, yet by the time he died in 1468, even the pope knew his reputation—all because this goldsmith found a way to print using movable type. His journey to fame came painstakingly slowly (detailed by Alix Christie in her novel, Gutenberg’s Apprentice).

Gutenberg decided to print Bibles as his first priority (for both spiritual and financial reasons), but the printing press also led to many other accessible, relatively affordable books that nurtured the Italian Renaissance.

Gutenberg Bible
By Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg –, Public Domain,

Yet perhaps the greatest impact of Gutenberg’s invention came more than half a century later, when Martin Luther’s deft harnessing of the printing press  enabled his message to spread quickly to sympathizers (creating a vast audience) as well as enemies (who would have happily silenced Luther’s voice).

Would the printing industry have mushroomed without Luther’s prolific writing and the Roman Church’s responses? Not likely;  the relationship between Luther and the printing press proved mutually beneficial (as Andrew Pettegree points out in Brand Luther).

Without the printing press, would the Reformation have taken place in the sixteenth century?  When might the printing industry have developed if not for Martin Luther’s calls for church reform?


Book printer, 1568
Book printer, 1568, Jost Amman – “Eygentliche Beschreibung aller Stände auff Erden, hoher und nidriger, geistlicher und weltlicher, aller Künsten, Handwercken und Händeln …”, Public Domain,

Editor’s note: blog posts will alternate between 1) the lead-up to the Reformation and 2) the Reformation’s 500th anniversary. Today we begin with resources related to the Reformation’s 500th anniversary.

October 31 1517: Martin Luther and the Day that Changed the World, by Martin E. Marty, Paraclete Press, 2016 (focus on Luther’s significance and the ecumenical movement) (website dedicated to Reformation’s 500th anniversary, many topics and events)

Brand Luther, by Andrew Pettegree. Penguin Random House, 2016. (about Luther’s use of the printing press)

Here I Walk: A Thousand Miles on Foot to Rome With Martin Luther, by Andrew L. Wilson. Brazos Press, 2016 (the recent travel narrative of a couple who tried to follow Luther’s route)

Luther and the Reformation, video production by Rick Steves

“This week’s best radio: Martin Luther and the Reformation,” (UK radio programs about the Reformation; can be downloaded)

Art exhibit on Luther’s 95 Theses:

Luther and Katharina: A Novel of Love and Rebellion, by Jody Hedlund. Waterbrook Multnomah, 2015 (fictionalized romance of Martin Luther and Katharina von Bora)

“Luther is famous, but we know little about him,” (German article about Luther)

“Reading the Reformation in 2017,” by Bruce Gordon, Christianity Today, Jan/Feb 2017, pp. 47-51 (review article about recent Reformation-related books)

What are your favorite not-too-heavy Reformation 500 resources?

Heroes* Who Felt the Heat

Wycliffe at work
John Wycliffe at work, unknown artist, Public Domain,


In England, John Wycliffe translated the Bible into English in 1382, and insisted the scriptures, not the pope, should have authority over the Christian church. He also attacked the sale of indulgences, certain Church doctrines, and the clergy’s immorality and privileges. After years of speaking out, he lost his position at Oxford.  Although he died of natural causes, the Church Council of Constance ordered his writings and his bones burned in 1428.

Jan HusJan Hus, by Christoph Murer 1587 – Selbstgefertigter Scan eines Holzschnitts aus eigenem Bildarchiv, Public Domain,

In the early 1400s in Bohemia, Jan Hus preached that the Bible should be the authority for the Church, and spoke out against the pope’s use of indulgences. His protest lasted until 1415, when he was burned at the stake.

Girolamo Savonarola
Girolamo Savonarola, by Fra Bartolomeo, Public domain,

At the height of the Italian Renaissance, a monk named Savonarola stirred up the people of Florence, preaching Christian renewal, condemning vanities, and prophesying glory for the city-state. At the peak of the monk’s influence, Florentines expelled their rulers and threw their precious books and paintings onto bonfires, but in 1498, Savonarola himself was burned.

These three men, as well as many others, shared Martin Luther’s concern for a purified Church that wouldn’t  contaminate God’s truth—but didn’t live to see it happen.

Martin Luther, too felt the heat of persecution at his heels. Why did he survive and found a reform movement that changed not only religion, but history, throughout Europe and beyond?

In real estate, location is everything, and Luther had the advantage of residing in German lands, far from the pope. More than that, he had an agile mind for theology and a publicist’s eye to use the recently-invented printing press to build support, and a protector (Frederick the Wise) who resisted the pope’s control of Frederick’s territory.

Luther’s success relied on more than the coincidence of chance factors, but that’s a topic for the future.

Why do you think Luther’s Reformation succeeded?

*Editor’s note: many contemporaries referred to these individuals as heroes, but this writer doesn’t endorse everything they said and did.

In the Beginning


Hands of God and Man, detail from Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, Public Domain via Wikimedia

Why this blog?

As October 31st, 2017 approaches,  media coverage of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation increases daily.  What more should be said, and why by me, a devotée of the Renaissance since a college semester spent in Italy?

Simply put, focusing on the Reformation without the Renaissance would be like paying attention to one twin while ignoring the other.  For good and for ill, the Renaissance shaped the Reformation. To understand the Reformation, we must appreciate its twin movement of modernity, the Renaissance.

Why me?

The Renaissance and Reformation period was my mental world for years as I earned my PhD in History at Stanford University. Under my mentor, Lewis W. Spitz, my understanding and appreciation of the Reformation grew to rival my passion for the Renaissance.

I’ve continued to expand my knowledge of the Renaissance/Reformation era as I’ve researched and written my forthcoming historical novel, Lucia’s Renaissance. (When Martin Luther’s writings ignite a young girl’s faith, she must choose—abandon her beliefs or risk her life in the turbulent world of late Renaissance Italy.)

Join me in exploring the stories of the key figures as Renaissance meets Reform!