Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Erasmus, Romans 3:28 and Faith Alone: "Vox sola, tot clamoribus lapidata hoc saeculo in Luthero, reverenter in Patribus auditur"

Martin Luther is often criticized for allegedly adding the word "alone" to his German translation of Romans 3:28. Ironically, it was a Roman Catholic scholar that best defended Luther on this: Joseph A. Fitzmyer pointed out a number of people previous to Luther also saw the thrust of "alone" in Romans 3:28. There's another popular historical snippet sometimes used similarly to defend Luther's translation, this time from Reformed theologian Charles Hodge:

That a man is justified by faith. If by faith, it is not of works; and if not of works, there can be no room for boasting, for boasting is the assertion of personal merit. From the nature of the case, if justification is by faith, it must be by faith alone. Luther's version, therefore, allein durch den glauben, is fully justified by the context. The Romanists, indeed, made a great outcry against that version as a gross perversion of Scripture, although Catholic translators before the time of Luther had given the same translation. So in the Nuremberg Bible, 1483, "Nur durch den glauben." And the Italian Bibles of Geneva, 1476, and of Venice, 1538, per sola fede. The Fathers also often use the expression, "man is justified by faith alone;" so that Erasmus, De Ratione Concionandi, Lib. III., says, "Vox sola, tot clamoribus lapidata hoc saeculo in Luthero, reverenter in Patribus auditur." See Koppe and Tholuck on this verse.

According to Hodge, Erasmus similarly knew that others previous to Luther used the word "alone" in Romans 3:28. Erasmus is claimed to have said, "Vox sola, tot clamoribus lapidata hoc saeculo in Luthero, reverenter in Patribus auditur" (The word alone, which has been received with such a shower of stones when uttered in our times by Luther, is yet reverently listened to when spoken by the Fathers). The quote seems suspicious. Luther began translating the New Testament in 1521 and released a finished version in 1522. Certainly Erasmus had some sympathy to Luther's cause early on, but by 1524 their polite ties were severed over the freedom / bondage of the human will and the relationship of faith and works. It would be surprising to find Erasmus defending Luther at any time on this issue! 

It seemed simple enough to search out the context of this statement from Erasmus (especially since it was a renowned Reformed scholar citing it!).  However, the exact opposite occurred: I could not locate it. I did discover though that Erasmus said something like it without mentioning Luther... at all. 

I'm going to work backward in searching for the sources Hodge mentions. He says, "See Koppe and Tholuck on this verse." "Tholuck" refers to Fred Augustus Gottreu Tholuck, Exposition of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans: With Extracts from the Evangelical Works of the Fathers and Reformers (Philadelphia: Sorin and Ball, 1844). Hodge certainly appears to be citing Erasmus via Tholuck verbatim on page 113. Notice the Erasmus citation is almost exact except Hodge cites "De Ratione Concionandi, Lib. III" while Tholuck cites "De ratione conciondi 1.3." 

"Koppe" appears to refer to Johann Benjamin Koppe, and I think Hodge had in mind Koppe's Novum Testamentum Koppianum.  I could find no extant copies online to see exactly what Hodge was referring to from this source. Koppe wrote in the eighteenth century, so seeing exactly what Hodge was referring to would be interesting since it predates Tholuck's nineteenth century comment. 

"De Ratione Concionandi"refers to the book by Erasmus, Ecclesiastes: On the Art of Preaching (Ecclesiastes: sive de ratione concionandi) (1535).  I spent some time searching the works of Erasmus for any of the volumes of "De Ratione Concionandi." Of the volumes I was able to locate, I found no instance of the exact quote "Vox sola, tot clamoribus lapidata hoc saeculo in Luthero, reverenter in Patribus auditur." I'm not alone in this. In the nineteenth century, James Morison did the same thing. He states
Tholuck says that Erasmus (Liber Concion. lib. iii.) remarks,—vox sola, tot clamoribus lapidata hoc seculo in Luthero, reverenter in patribus auditur,—“The word alone, which has been received with such a shower of stones when uttered in our times by Luther, is yet reverently listened to when spoken by the Fathers." Hodge repeats the quotation and the reference. We do not know where Tholuck picked it up. But while the observation seems to bespeak, by its peculiar felicity and piquancy, an Erasmian origin, it is certainly not to be found in that great repository of felicities, and wisdom, and wit, and semi-garrulities,—the Liber Concionandi.
To answer Morison's question, Tholuck could have picked up the quote from any number of sources. 
If one does a search specific to eighteenth century books, a number of hits appear with attribution to Erasmus. The quote goes back further. In the early seventeenth century, Lutheran theologian Johann Gerhard states, "Erasmus wrote to someone: 'The word 'alone' which in our time has been assailed by so many outcries in Luther, is reverently heard and read in the fathers" (Latin source, English translation from On Justification through Faith - Theological Commonplaces, p. 317). The quote makes it all the way back to the sixteenth century: In 1591, Martin Chemnitz also cites it: "Therefore we can correctly say with Erasmus: 'This word sola, which has been attacked with so much noise in the era of Luther, was reverently heard and read among the fathers'" (English source). Still though, there is no meaningful reference. There is a sixteenth century source that predates Chemnitz by ten years (1581) that includes some important aspects of the quote:

Notice some striking similarities to the quote under scrutiny. First, the source is said to be "Eccl 3." Second, some of the quote is exactly presented: "vox Sola, tot clamoribus hoc seculo lapidata." There are blatant dissimilarities as well. First, Luther is not mentioned. Second, the church fathers are not mentioned, but rather, Hilary of Poitiers is. If one searches the writings of Erasmus focusing on Hilary rather than Luther, significant clues are revealed. Note the following observations from The Collected Works of Erasmus

The author cites "book 3 CWE 68 967" for footnotes 828 and 829. "CWE 68" stands for "Collected Works of Erasmus." "book 3" refers to "The Evangelical Preacher, book one (Ecclesiates sive de ratione confitendi) (1535)." This appears to correspond to the reference given above by Tholuck (De ratione conciondi 1.3) On page 966-967, Erasmus states: 

Interestingly, footnote 1399 states, "Erasmus is no doubt alluding to Martin Luther and the central theological issue of the Reformation, justification by faith alone (sola fides)."

I think it's probable to say that "book 3 CWE 68 967" (expounded above) is the original source of the quote eventually used by Hodge and others. I'm uncertain who added "hoc saeculo in Luthero" to the quote. Erasmus penned his original words in 1535. Martin Chemnitz was the first I could locate adding Luther to the citation (1591). Was it Chemnitz? I don't know. If it was, his basic crime would be adding explicit meaning to what Erasmus was probably implying (i.e., Luther) and changing Hilary to "fathers." Also, the context of the comment from Erasmus was not an exegetical exposition of Romans 3:28, but rather, a passing comment made on Matthew 9:6.  What I find most interesting is that if Erasmus had Luther in mind, he penned these words about a decade after his harsh battle with Luther. I find that amazing: Erasmus was able to get beyond his personal encounter with Luther and still defend his translation of including "alone"... in a roundabout way.  

D.A. Carson posits the early Erasmus agreed with Luther in some sense about "faith alone." 


Anonymous said...


Does the Douay-Rheims Version (Challoner Edition) have any merit in the field of textual criticism? What are your thoughts on that translation of the Bible?

James Swan said...

I have not done any study on that translation... so I don't have anything meaningful to say.

That said, some years back, a contributor to this blog posted the following:


For me, the basic takeaway from Carrie's old blog post is that the translation had a polemical nature and favored revising the Latin text.