Desiderius Erasmus and “It wasn’t me, it was God”

For Erasmus, grace is active in our acting, in the beauty of virtue displayed that engages and transforms our affections, allowing us to play a part that becomes our own as we play it. […] Erasmus subverts the distinction between acting and being acted upon, fiction and reality, hypocrisy and honesty. Accepting the essential theatricality of virtue involves embracing a paradoxical convergence of outer and inner, ideal and real, grace and nature, other and self. It gives up the preoccupation with control betrayed by the need to draw clear distinctions between self and not-self, acting and being acted upon, giving and receiving.

Jennifer Herdt, Putting on Virtue: The Legacy of the Splendid Vices1

It’s time to reconsider the phrase, “It wasn’t me. It was God.”  This phrase, often used by individuals who have accomplished things they consider impressive, has two purposes: 1) to deny credit to the self and 2) to give credit to God.

Yet it’s problematic because it draws too strict a bifurcation between divine and human agency. What’s more, the phrase carries within it an inadequate account of humility.

As Herdt writes in the above, “For Erasmus, grace is active in our acting[.]” Setting aside his semi-Pelagian tendencies for a moment, we can join Erasmus in recognizing that God works through human agency without overwhelming it. There is no reason to be ashamed of our agency, least of all when we have done something praiseworthy. Grace is active in our acting.

Consider Paul’s claim, “I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:27).2 It is Paul who disciplines his body and keeps it under control. Is it also God, through Paul? Of course, but Paul does not think it necessary to deny his own agency in order to affirm God’s.

Desiderius Erasmus (1466/69–1536) in a 1523 po...

Desiderius Erasmus (1466/69–1536) in a 1523 portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Affirming that God works through our agency helps us to be alert to the development of character over time. God not only is active in our acting, he is active through the ongoing transformation of our dispositions. Herdt completes the sentence quoted above by saying, “For Erasmus, grace is active in our acting, in the beauty of virtue displayed that engages and transforms our affections, allowing us to play a part that becomes our own as we play it.”3

That is to say, God changes us as we act, so that repeated virtuous actions become habits as we fall in love with the image of Christ that we begin to see in ourselves. “It wasn’t me; it was God,” suggests that I do not need to take seriously the fact that I am (gradually, in fits and starts) becoming more like God.4 Whatever I have accomplished, I have done it because God has created me in his image and is refining me by his Spirit to be more like his Son.5

The lurking issue beneath the phrase is how to conceive the relationship between divine and human agency with regard to the good deeds of Christians. Herdt invites us to join Erasmus in “giv[ing] up the preoccupation with control betrayed by the need to draw clear distinctions between self and not-self, acting and being acted upon, giving and receiving.” Was it I, or was it God? It was both. In Christ, the Holy Spirit in some sense unites the self with God. As Paul says, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20).6

Yet if the phrase is meant to connote humility, then we need an account of the virtue that allows us to recognize our own praiseworthy actions. Augustine provides just such an account by defining humility as the acknowledgment of dependence on God. This simple definition clears away any confusion between humility and self-deprecation. It is not humble for me to deny my own goodness or ability. It is humble for me to recognize what God has done in me and to be awed by it, because I am simultaneously aware of all my wickedness and corruption that—were grace not active in my acting—would surely prevent me from doing anything that could bring glory to my Lord.

Peter Kreeft tells a story about how in heaven I will be exactly as pleased when someone else paints a masterpiece as I am when I paint a masterpiece. Freed from insecurity and envy, I will rejoice freely when God is glorified, whether through my abilities or through another’s.

Perhaps, then, we can feel free to acknowledge our dependence on and gratitude to God without finding it necessary to deny our own involvement in our accomplishments.

 

1 Jennifer Herdt, Putting on Virtue: The Legacy of the Splendid Vices (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2008), p. 119.
2 All Biblical quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
3 Is Herdt providing an Edwardsian reading of Erasmus? The precise arrangement here of beauty, virtue, and the transformation of affections is reminiscent of Jonathan Edwards’ language.
4 See 2 Cor 3:18; Rom 8:29; Eph 5:1; Lev 20:26.
5 We might argue, along the same lines, that there is not enough emphasis on sanctification of the whole person over time in the WWJD brand of popular ethical reflection.
6 The deepest account of the relation between divine and human agency that I am aware of is Jonathan Edwards’ Freedom of the Will. Readers interested in a more detailed delineation of the type of compatibilism suggested by the present discussion cannot do better than to look to Edwards.

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  • Mike

    Someone I knew once commented (in response to someone else saying “It wasn’t me, it was God”): “No, God would have done it better; but you did a fine job.” The (I think correct) implication is that it’s actually not humble at all to claim that God is the author of the things that you have done.

  • Josh

    Thought provoking. Hopefully inspires believers to give credit to the Lord with a humble heart–Acting and speaking purposefully rather than unconsciously responding.

  • AStev

    Excellent post… the 1 Cor 9:27 pretty much proves the point right off the bat, and the rest of the post is just icing on the cake :)

    Over the weekend, I was chewing on a handful of other verses that indicate the believer has real responsibility and agency, but also emphasizes God’s working in and through our actions.

    “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide.”
    - John 15:16

    “We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
    - Ephesians 2:10

    “It is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
    - Philippians 2:13

    “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.”
    - Colossians 1:28-29

    And one could possibly include Acts 13:43, where Paul and Barnabus urge some new believers to “continue in the grace of God”. God will ensure that his people continue in his grace, but that does not negate their very real responsibility to do so.

  • rey

    If you really think Erasmus feels it necessary to deny his own agency for his actions, you clearly haven’t read his Diatribe on Free-will. He talks about how a ship pilate who saves a ship from crashing on shore will say “God saved the ship” but certainly, Erasmus says, the skill of the pilate had something to do with it. He talks about how a father will say “Look at the baby God gave us” but then he jokes, “yet surely the father had something to do with it in begetting!” So, in other words, you’re another illiterate guy writing about the writings of a man you’ve never even read. Third and fourth hand knowledge is almost always WRONG. Duh.