Erasmus was only ever able – and only ever wanted – to sponge down the system he was in. He could take pot-shots at bad popes and wish people were more devoted, but because he was unwilling to engage with deeper, doctrinal issues, he could never bring about more than cosmetic changes. He was doomed ever to remain a prisoner of where the church was at. And so it must be in a world conquered by him. For as long as doctrine is ignored, we must remain captives of the ruling system or the spirit of the age, whatever that may be.
Yet is all this fair to Erasmus? Was he not the one who made the Greek New Testament available, so providing the coals for the Reformation? Certainly he did, and yet his possession of the Scriptures (and his deep study of them) changed little for the man himself because of how he treated them. Burying them under convenient assertions of their vagueness, he accorded the Scriptures little practical, let alone governing, authority. The result was that, for Erasmus, the Bible was just one voice among many, and so its message could be tailored, squeezed and adjusted to fit his own vision of what Christianity was.
To break out of that suffocating scheme and achieve any substantial reformation, it took Luther’s attitude, that Scripture is the only sure foundation for belief (sola scriptura). The Bible had to be acknowledged as the supreme authority and allowed to contradict and overrule all other claims, or else it would itself be overruled and its message hijacked. In other words, a simple reverence for the Bible and acknowledgment that it has some authority would never have been enough to bring about the Reformation. Sola Scriptura was the indispensable key for change.
However, it was not just a question of the authority of the Bible; the reason Luther started the Reformation, and Erasmus did not, was the difference in what they saw as the content of the Bible. For Erasmus, the Bible was little more than a collection of moral exhortations, urging believers to be more like Christ, their example. For Luther, this was to turn the gospel on its head: its optimism displayed its utter ignorance of the seriousness of sin. As he saw it, what sinners need, first and foremost, is a saviour; and in the Bible is, first and foremost, a message of salvation. As Richard Sibbes lamented, a century after Luther, it was all to easy to lose that controlling focus on Christ and his gift of righteousness, and yet that was the very heart of true reform. For all that theBible was opened, without the message of Christ’s free gift of righteousness, there could be no Reformation.