Erasmus, the hesitant reformer
“Erasmus laid the egg and Luther hatched it” –16th Century saying of the people
Just as Switzerland was a neutral country during World War II, Desiderius Erasmus did everything that he could to be the “Switzerland” of the Protestant Reformation. Born in 1466, Erasmus had very humble beginnings as the illegitimate son of a Dutch priest. However, the mark that he left on the world was anything but humble. He was the first internationally famous thinker of his time, he wrote 226 works totaling about 2.5 million copies, and provided the world with a readable Greek New Testament. But why was this “prince of the humanists” so influential in the Protestant Reformation? Let’s start in the year 1499 where we find Erasmus listening to a lecture by John Colet at Oxford expounding the Pauline letters using the grammatico-historical method. It was through the influence of John Colet and Sir Thomas More that Erasmus became eager to master the classical tongues; which he did, and soon became the foremost scholar on the classical writings, to include the Latin Vulgate.
Largely humanists at this period in history had grown tired of the corruption of the church and state, and they desired a return to the classical thinking and living of Aristotle, Plato, the New Testament, and the early church fathers. They believed that in order to bring society back to virtuous and righteous living it was necessary to remove the clutter of man-made traditions and papal externalities. Erasmus himself was convinced that outer righteousness meant nothing if the inner self was still corrupt. Writing on baptism, he said “what good is it to be outwardly sprinkled with holy water, if one is filthy within?” It was God’s work through His vessel, Erasmus, that the Protestant Reformation was able to have the impact that it did. His contribution to the Reformation can be described as a three-fold program.
First, there needed to be a moral reform. Being a humanist (not in any way similar to humanists of the 21st century), he detested the monastic lifestyle and wrote in his Enchiridion militis Christiani (Dagger or handbook of the Christian Soldier), how a true soldier of Christ did not withdraw from the common life of the world, but rather abandoned the pagan vices and trained themselves to live as Christ in practical and daily living. He also wrote very harshly against the corruption of the church. In fact, his book Praise of Folly, is considered “the most severe attacks on the medieval Church that had, up to that time, been made.” Even his scandalous book Julies Excluded from Heaven, stirred the pot as it essentially said Pope Julius II would be refused admission into heaven because of how he corruptly bribed his way to gain the papacy. He even spoke vehemently against indulgences saying “what a filthy trade this is, designed to fill-up money boxes, rather than to enrich people’s spirituality.’
Secondly, he sought a cultural reform (which is where some people probably would feel a bit uneasy). He saw education as the solution to mankind’s problems and that a return to the classics would enable Christian citizens to be more influential in their societies. Lastly, he cried out for a Scriptural reform. He saw how vitally important it was for the people to have the Word of God in their native tongues and approved and encouraged the translation of his New Testament into other languages.
While not outright rejecting infant baptism, he did suggest that baptism could be given at the age of puberty when a person would be able to understand the significance of it. Additionally, on the Lord’s Supper, he seemed to hold that it was a symbol, although he does contradict himself at times (“Of the reality of the Lord’s body, nothing is uncertain. Of the method of the presence, it is permitted in a certain way to be uncertain”).
And while Erasmus held firmly to orthodox Christianity in terms of the incarnation or the Trinity, his understanding of free-will is much more aligned with the Pelagian heresy that taught that man could will themselves to do good, apart from God’s work in the person. However, to what extent was Erasmus a pelagian? It could be argued that he was only a semi-pelagian since Erasmus felt, and argued, that the question of whether or not man’s will is free can be ignored safely. He was, after all a humanist, and had a low view of doctrine and theology, but a very high view of inner purity exercised with outward righteousness. And this could be the reason why Luther needed Erasmus. Luther wrote, “I am not concerned with the life, but with doctrines” and so it is through Erasmus and Luther that the people begin to understand the importance of having right doctrine and proper devotion.
It is sad though that Erasmus eventually does side with the Roman Catholic powers, since he was one who detested dissensions above all, but that was never his intention or desire. If I could leave you with some final words from him, “It is clear that many of the reforms for which Luther calls are urgently needed. My only wish is that now that I am old I be allowed to enjoy the results of my efforts. Both sides reproach me and seek to coerce me. Some claim that since I do not attack Luther I agree with him, while the Lutherans declare that I am a coward who has forsaken the gospel.” He was a man with a great mind and a heart for the people, and truly a forerunner to the reformation.
Grace and Peace,
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