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Meet Erasmus of Rotterdam

15 Jun

(This summer, The Evangelical Orphan will feature several postings from my students at Phoenix Seminary. They have be encouraged to meet long-lost relatives from our ecclesiastical family, and introduce them to us all – in class, and through this blog. We’re hoping these offerings will serve as a whet for your ongoing appetite to learn more about our history. Enjoy! -bh)

Erasmus … “The Prince of Humanists”

Erasmus - by Hans Holbein the Younger

Erasmus – by Hans Holbein the Younger

Erasmus lived in Europe from 1466 until 1536. He was a priest and scholar who loved Christ and his bride. As a predecessor to the coming reformation he contributed to it in a number of important ways, however, he never broke with the papacy or the established church. As a result his importance and role were largely downplayed for centuries.

As the illegitimate son of a Catholic priest and a physician’s daughter orphaned by the plague; Erasmus was hardly positioned for great success and glory. His early education was entrusted to a monastic group, “The Brethren of the Common Life.” Although he would later be critical of certain monastic ideals, Erasmus would go on to appreciate the discipline and order that he learned from the order.

In order to fulfill a desire to study and travel Erasmus joined the Augustinians and was ordained as a priest. Erasmus became the secretary to the bishop of Cambrai who sent him to Paris to study theology. The studies in Paris were rigorous and challenging, but his monastic upbringing prepared him for the studies and the difficulty of the studies would prepare him for his future academic works. As he studied Erasmus developed a love for his studies. It is this love that connected him with a movement of academics called the Humanists. The Humanists were men devoted to the study of the literary works of the past. They were not Humanist based on their belief of the centrality of men, rather on their devotion to the humanities.

Throughout his studies Erasmus began writing and quickly became an accomplished and prolific writer. He would write no fewer than 15 published works and by 1530 between 10 and 20 percent of the published works sold were written by him. His works included titles like; On Free Will, The Praise of Folly, On Civility in Children, Copia: Foundations of the Abundant Style, Julius Exclusus, and Handbook of a Christian Soldier. The last book was a more complete expression of his theology. Erasmus believed that all men were accountable as soldiers of Christ and used a series of military metaphors to express the call to discipline and service. He was critical of the monastic and priestly elites that celebrated their piety, but did little to call others to practical lives of obedience. He was also critical of the engagement in “the vices of the pagans” that he observed at every level of the church leadership. These criticisms would eventually lead him to speak well of Luther’s call for reform even if he disagreed with Luther’s methodology.

Rotterdam, The Netherlands

Rotterdam, The Netherlands

Erasmus pursued the best theologians around Europe. His studies took him to England as well. While in England he made two enduring relationships that would impact him for the rest of his life. He became fast friends with Thomas More and they remained close for the rest of their lives. The second relationship emerged after Erasmus heard John Colet preach. Colet preached from the Scriptures anew rather than the commentaries that Erasmus had studied in Paris and elsewhere. It is not clear if the theology was distinctly different, but it was clear to Erasmus that it came from a devotion to and an understanding of the text. This kindled within Erasmus a desire for an understanding of the text that was the result of deep study of the text.

For Erasmus the logical step was to seek the text in its purest form. Rather than mining the depths of contemporary understanding he sought to dig down into the text itself. To this effort Erasmus began to study Greek and to gather to himself as many manuscripts as he could find. As a result of his discipline and dedication he was able to quickly master the Greek language. He worked frantically on the New Testament and quickly produced a collected Greek new testament formed from the manuscripts. Upon completing the collection he began to translate the work in to the common language of the academy, Latin. Although the Latin Vulgate already existed at this time, Erasmus desired to improve the quality of the translation both in accuracy and in care for the language.

What Erasmus produced was a tri-linear publication with the original Greek New Testament line by line with both the Vulgate and his own Latin translation. Included in the text were his personal study notes as well. Erasmus’ express purpose for producing this document was to create a translation that would be easily translated into the common languages of the people quickly and accurately. In fact this is the most significant impact that Erasmus had on the reformation. His translation and collected manuscript work would go on to be used in the translation of the KJV version and Luther’s German translation of the bible. Erasmus invited scholars to discuss the translations and the common man to engage in the text.

Erasmus is quoted in the preface of his published translation as saying, “Would that these were translated into each and every language… Would that the farmer might sing snatches of scripture at his plough and that the weaver might hum phrases of Scripture to the tune of his shuttle, that the traveler might lighten with stories from Scripture the weariness of his journey.” Even before the Reformation took hold, Erasmus desired future where the Holy Scriptures guided and inspired all of God’s people directly.

erasmus pcAlthough Erasmus was highly critical of the corruption in the church’s leadership he never fully supported Luther. He is quoted as supporting Luther’s call for reformation and speaking well of him to the Pope, but rather than serve to promote Luther this largely only served to alienate Erasmus and the Papacy. Despite the rift between Erasmus and the Pope, he did not support Luther’s efforts. Erasmus desired the unity of the church and a call to reform the practices of the church. He viewed the dissention and disunity as equally abhorrent to the corruption inside the existing church and therefore struggled to choose a side of the argument to support. Erasmus was also able to recognize the great cost that the debate would have saying, “I doubt that either side of the dispute can be suppressed without grave loss.”

In his later years Erasmus was still pursued by both the church and the Lutherans. He continued to ride the fence between the two positions. As a result the Pope accused him of sedition and censored much of his writing and the Lutherans accused him of forsaking the gospel and called him a coward. When pressed for an answer Erasmus recognized the Pope as the Vicar of Christ and the established church as the best opportunity for unity of the faith.

It was only centuries later when the rhetoric died down that Lutherans and Catholics alike looked back and recognized the work of Erasmus. He was then understood to be a man of significant scholarly achievement and as a man who loved the Scriptures and Christ. Despite his abstaining from a fight that he feared would hurt both parties, he was a passionate man seeking God and desiring the same for all men.

Nick Fryberger

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