Erasmus and the Seeds of Reformation

“the crowning glory of the Christian humanists” (Latourette 1953)

Erasmus was the most important humanist writer of the Renaissance who laid the intellectual foundations of the Reformation. He was born out of wedlock in Rotterdam, Netherlands. His father was a priest; and his mother took care of him. He was educated as a boy at St. Lebuin’s, where he was taught humanities.

After losing his parents to the plague, he was then sent to a school run by a monastic order called Brethren of the Common Life. Their founder was Gerhard Groote who attacked abuses of the Church and called people to be holy, not as monastics, but within their current vocations—the common life. Their life was based on what was called the “modern devotion”—contemplating and imitating the life of Christ. Their schools “stressed both scholarship and devotion, and became centers for the renewal of the church, for most of their alumni were possessed of a critical and reforming spirit” (Gonzalez 1984). There, Erasmus gleaned the importance of a relationship with God but eschewed the harsh rules and methods of the monks, who broke students’ spirits to teach humility (Galli and Olsen 2000).

He resisted monastic life, but joined the Augustinians out of necessity, since he and his brother were poor. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1492.

“When I get a little money I buy books. If any is left . . . I buy food and clothes.” – Erasmus of Rotterdam

Soon afterwards, he was sent to study theology at the University of Paris and, eventually, throughout Europe, “driven by a desire to seek out the best theologians of his day” (Galli and Olsen 2000). He was not a great scholar, but had a skill for Latin. Once, while in England, in 1499, John Colet exhorted him to be a “primitive theologian” like the church Fathers rather than adopt the argumentative habits of the modern scholastics. Turning his efforts to studying Greek, he wrote to Colet saying, “I cannot tell you, dear Colet, how I hurry on, with all sails set, to holy literature. How I dislike everything that keeps me back, or retards me.” Actually, he came to dislike not only monasticism and scholasticism, but also theology and sacraments. What he desired was a purging of superstition and return to the ethical teachings of Christ. Still, he shied away from any talk of breaking from the Church or doing away with dogmas or traditions. “He appeared to cherish the conviction that through the appeal to man’s reason both Church and society could be vastly improved” (Latourette 1953).

The evils of the ecclesial and monastic hierarchy were themes of his social satire in The Praise of Folly (ca. 1511) and Familiar Colloquies (1518). “. . . Widely read by the cultivated class of Northern Europe[,] such reading created a spirit of discontent with the papal system and a desire to have reform in religion” (Cairns 1996).

In 1515, Handbook of the Christian Soldier became a cult classic. With it Erasmus targeted educated lay people and began to alter their self-perceptions. He painted the clergy as educators who should teach the laity everything they know. He emphasized personal disciplines rather than institutional sacraments. He called for a reformation which he characterized as a collective return to the Fathers and Scripture. He said reading scripture is vital because it is transformational, motivating toward love. Much like the Brethren of the Common Life, he wrote that the NT is the law of Christ we are called to obey and Christ is the example we are called to imitate

In 1516, Erasmus produced the first Greek New Testament. Among those who praised his work were Pope Leo X and the soon-to-be reformer, Martin Luther. Once it was printed, theologians could finally compare the original language with the Vulgate. Several points of translation were shown to be bogus. Concerning marriage, what was once translated as “sacrament” was now understood to mean “mystery.” “Do penance” was revised to “repent.” And where “full of grace” once described Mary, it was more accurately “favored one.” This pulled the rug out from under the scholastics and conservative Catholics, while delighting reformers. Zwingli “found congenial [Erasmus’] passion for reform and the Greek New Testament of that master so enthralled him that he memorized much of its text” (Latourette 1953). In fact, he copied Paul’s letter from a borrowed copy and memorized them all in Greek (Cairns 1996).

The theme and tone of Erasmus’ books compelled Luther to write asking for his support against the Church. Though Erasmus also saw the need for reform, he did not see the need for disunity, and wrote, “I detest dissension. . . . I doubt that either side in the dispute can be suppressed without grave loss. It is clear that many of the reforms for which Luther calls are urgently needed” (Galli and Olsen 2000). He also made it clear that he was not about to take on the Church, saying, “I am not so made as to fly in the face of the Vicar of Christ.” “Both sides reproach me and seek to coerce me,” he said. “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.”

In 1524, Erasmus published The Freedom of the Will, which focused on reforming abuses instead of attacking doctrine and upheld free will rather than “Luther’s view that man’s will was so bound that the initiative in salvation must come from God” (Cairns 1996). That same year Luther wrote The Bondage of the Will. By the 1530’s, 10-20% of all book sales were by Erasmus. (Galli and Olsen 2000)

Cairns, Earle E. Christianity through the Centuries: A History of the Christian Church. Third Edition, Revised and Expanded. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996.

Galli, Mark, and Olsen, Ted. 131 Christians Everyone Should Know. Nashville: Holman Reference, 2000.

Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity, Volume I:The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1984.

Latourette, Kenneth Scott. A History of Christianity. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1953.

McGrath, Alister E. Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1998.


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