Understanding Erasmus

Taken from, “ERASMUS & LUTHER: Their Attitude to Toleration.”
Written by, Robert Henry Murray.
Edited for thought, sense and space.

8761879_f520[Today, that is, in this day and age, we usually try to understand Luther by understanding Erasmus, and I am no exception. But I would like to take a moment to understand where Erasmus was coming from and to understand the issues and problems that he faced. In doing so I think that we will better understand Luther, which is no easy feat, for Luther was a very complex man. A professor once told me that to understand a philosopher or theologian you needed to understand his torment, and the “goads” drove him, and Erasmus was certainly one of those goads that drove Luther. To understand Luther and what he did, also means to understand his day with its controversies; it also means to understand the great trends as well as its great thinkers of his day. But to understand Luther well… you must understand his adversaries. When Luther wrote “Bondage of the Will,” he realized that he not only had to crush Erasmus’ thought, but he had to crush Erasmus’ reputation, his credentials as it were, as a leading thinker. In short, Luther not only had to prove his works and thoughts against Erasmus, he had to prove “himself.” Not as some rural friar, or as some “drunken German,” as the pope described him, but as a most worthy man, or scholar, against the most respected thinker, or worthy man, of his day… and he had to do it in the field of scholarly combat. This he did.  But it took time for Luther to bring himself up to do it. And I also believe that the effort and the ordeal cost Luther… dearly.  One does not go into combat of this variety, against the forces of evil, in high places, without cost. But that is the subject of another post. –On a pastoral note, what has the Gospel of Christ cost you? Think about it.  –MWP]

Hans_Holbein_d._J._-_Erasmus_(detail)_-_WGA11500Great is the domination of Voltaire over the eighteenth century, great is the domination of Goethe over the first half of the nineteenth century, but greater still is the domination of Erasmus over the opening years of the sixteenth century.

Latin was then the common language of literary men of all nations, and over them all Erasmus reigned supreme: his was the seminal mind of the whole continent. As we shall see, perhaps no one ever demonstrated more clearly the seeming wisdom of Plato’s advice “that the world should be ruled by philosopher.”

The position of Erasmus was not a new one. The learned doctors of the Middle Ages were his predecessors. In that greatest century of their period, the thirteenth, they had created a method of thought. In the fourteenth they evolved a system of ecclesiastical government. In the fifteenth, through the work of the conciliar theory at the Councils of Bale and Constance, they directed the policy of the Church. What a body of men had accomplished, one man was now to accomplish. Had he not at his command that formidable machine, the printing-press, to diffuse his ideas throughout Europe?

With Petrarch, he could say, “Scribendi enim mihi vivendiqueunus finiserat.” He was more anxious to express ideas than to impress people. Life, however, saved him from being merely a humanist. “Erasmus and Reuchlin,” confessed Hutten, “are the two eyes of Germany.” “Not to respect, love and venerate Erasmus proves a man lacking in goodness and learning,” was the opinion of Lefevre d’ Etaples. Conrad Mutianus esteemed him “more eloquent than the eloquent Jerome,” and Andreas Carlstadt did not hesitate to declare him “the prince of the theologians.” “Almost all scholars are Erasmians,” so Johann Eck informed him.

For John Calvin, Erasmus is “the honour and delight of letters.” Philip Melanchthon once considered himself “as a simple soldier under the standards of Erasmus.” “To Martin Luther, for a time at least, he was “our honour and our hope,” the “king of literature.” There were many who even stated that Erasmus was due honors normally attributed to Divinity, he was the “New Evangelist.”

This admiration of Erasmus was not confined to the study of the scholar. Like Voltaire, he was courted by kings and princes. He can tell Polydore Vergilin 1527: “I have drawers full of letters from kings, princes, cardinals, dukes, nobles, bishops, written with the utmost civility. I receive uncommon and valuable presents from many of them.” German and Italian princelings felt honored by receiving letters from him. “The Emperor implores me to come to Spain,” he tells the Bishop of Augsburg, “King Ferdinand wants me at Vienna, Margaret in Brabant, and Henry in England; Sigismund asks me to go to Poland and Francis to France,and all offer me rich emoluments.” “Everywhere the greatest monarchs invite me,” he told Carondelet, April 30, 1526. Charles V nominated him a councilor and gave him a pension. Ferdinand, the brother of the Emperor,evinced the warmest regard for him: so too did Sigismund, the King of Poland. Francis I envied the glory of his rival in possessing such a subject, tried to attract him to Paris, “promising him mountains of gold,” and writing him a letter with his own hand.

Though the humanist was not always on friendly terms with the Church, the popes had, from motives of policy or from genuine admiration, promised him marks of their esteem.’ Leo X accepted with gratitude the dedication of his edition of the New Testament, and recommended the editor to Henry VIII.’ Adrian VI endeavored to bring him to Rome, there to compose books in defense of the Church. Paul III entertained the idea of bestowing on him a cardinal’s hat, and named him Prior of Deventer.

Since the time of Abelard, no man of letters exercised such widespread influence. It was indeed fitting that the Church should pay regard to the labors of her great son, for he embodied the religious, just as much as the literary, tendencies of the new age. “I have developed languages and letters,” he could proudly inform Louis Ber, “for the greatest good of theology.” He was the genius through whose clear brain all the questions of the time circulated, finding there an alembic whence they emerged clarified. What Leonardo da Vinci meant to the world in 1500, what Bacon meant in 1600, what Leibniz meant in 1700, what Goethe meant in 1800, Erasmus meant in the second and third decades of the sixteenth century.

Theology to the early Erasmus is truth, truth which must influence life. The aim of all religion is less to enlighten the mind than to transform the heart. Faith, hope and charity are the essence of Christianity. “What is religion?” is the question he addresses to Richard Foxe, Bishop of Winchester. “Is it anything else but true and perfect love? Is it not to die with Christ? Is it not to live with Him? Is it not to be only a body, only a soul with Christ?” “Through the Saviour we are one with God, and therefore one with all men. Theology requires a foundation of learning. For Erasmus is clear that if God does not require our knowledge, He does not require our ignorance. Therefore, at the age of twenty-two, in 1488, he had commented on the Epistle to the Romans. In 1505 he had published a Latin translation of the New Testament of Lorenzo Valla,with notes. In 1507 he asked Aldus Manutius to publish the Greek text of the New Testament. Throughout his early work there runs the assumption that theological knowledge is ascertainable, for it depends on the understanding of the text of the Bible, which, in spite of problems of interpretation, is clear.

The effort of school men, those pseudo-theologians, are vain. They define the indefinable, they distinguish the indistinguishable, and they divide the indivisible. They are like the heads of the Hydra: the more you cut them, the more they grow. He thoroughly agreed with Ambrosia that it did not please God to save men by dialectic. The goal of all our efforts, writes Erasmus, is Christ, and the road to Him is faith. “Faith is the only door which leads us to Christ.” He develops precisely the same conception of faith in his Paraphrases where he takes occasion to point out that in it “there is no compelling force, but by it all are invited” to come to Him.

Erasmus, like all humanists, was not prepared to believe in faith without works, but he was obviously prepared to lay more stress on faith than on works, and more stress on liberty than on grace. However, this “dagger of the Christian knight” poured scorn on the acceptance of scholastic dogmas and on the performance of outward rites. If men must adore the bones of Paul locked up in a casket, let them also adore the spirit of Paul which shines forth from his writing. If men honour the image of Christ’s face carved in wood or stone, or painted upon canvas, how much more ought they to honour the image of His mind expressed by the art of the Holy Spirit in the Gospel writing. In a word, the Church is a historical institution with a Divine foundation. Unlike Colet, he bestows more importance on the allegorical than on the literal meaning of the Bible. He warns men against the latter interpretation, exhorting them to break the hard and bitter husk so as to reach the sweet kernel “the spiritual sense” which is concealed within, and laying emphasis on the words of Jesus.

Religion to Erasmus is a process, not an act. Virtue, he insists, is a becoming. If it is true, he contends, in the spirit of Socrates, that evil is the result of ignorance, the first condition of virtue is knowledge of one’s self. “Let man look inward before he looks outward, though he is careful to add, “Carry out nothing under the pressure of feeling, but everything by reason.” What antique philosophy calls reason,” he teaches, “is what Paul sometimes calls the “Spirit”, sometimes the “hidden man,” sometimes the “law of reason.” Antiquity looks to reason, Christianity to grace. In the union of the ideals of Antiquity and Christianity, man becomes complete: he is a “whole being.”

Eight years after the appearance of the Enchiridion, came a book which dissolved all Europe in laughter, the Moria Ecomium, The Praise of Folly. Where the Enchiridion was intellectual and religious, the new work was classical and humanistic. For if on the one hand the author belongs to the Renaissance, on the other he belongs just as unmistakably to the Reformation.

A fortunate it was for Erasmus that Folly wore such a mask of jest when she appeared on the scene. The lash of Juvenal or Swift is forgotten for the mocking smile of Lucian or Voltaire. It is therefore no matter of surprise that the creator of the Moria Encomium never formally joined the party of reform.

His was not the enthusiasm of his younger rival, Luther: his was the calm observation of the irrationalities of mankind. However, many of the works of Erasmus are, in fact, an exposure of the follies and frauds of those who professed to serve the Church. For this very reason he must be counted among the forces preparing for the Reformation.

It should be noted that Erasmus, Reuchlin and Lefevre were, in spite of themselves, the precursors of Luther, Zwingli and Calvin.

It was the theologians who suffer from the lash of Folly: “They are deeply in my debt, as it is I who bestow upon them that self-love by which they are able to fancy themselves caught up to the third heaven, and to look down upon the rest of mankind as if they were so many sheep feeding on the ground; and indeed they pity their miserable condition, while they themselves… have so many escapes that no chains, though they should be forged on the anvil of Vulcan, can hold them so fast but that they will contrive to extricate themselves….”

From Church to State is an easy transition, and accordingly in 1515 Erasmus wrote the “Institution Principis Christiani” which discusses the education of a Christian prince. ‘Machiavelli’s survey of the same problem had been then in private circulation for two years. The humanist admits the position that the king rules by right divine, and draws the conclusion that his rule ought to be divinely right. The prince is urged to consider that “these are not your subjects whom you force to obey you, for it is consent which makes the prince, but those are your true subjects who serve you voluntarily,” a conception which the Erasmus afterwards applied to problems of the Church.

Both Erasmus and Machiavelli leave the people to the one side in their State. Erasmus, in true Renaissance spirit, teaches that the prince is to be far removed from the options held by the people: it is low, common, unworthy of him to feel with the people. As in the Praise of Folly there is a strong appeal made on behalf of peace and for international arbitration. For “Christ founded a bloodless empire. He wished it always to be bloodless. He delighted to call himself the Prince of Peace.”

One begins to see Erasmus’ strong desire for toleration when corresponds with Leo X, beginning by complimenting him on his decent from Lorenzo de’ Medici, and then proceeding to speak of his labours on the New Testament. The Pope is a musician: he is a lover of the fine arts. He builds the new basilica of St. Peter’s,allowing the sale of indulgences for the cost thereof. As Tetzel sells the indulgences in Germany, Luther attacks their sale, not as a reformer, but as an orthodox member of the Church. It is possible to look on the architect of St. Peter’s as a friend to toleration, for he provides the occasion which makes the monk begin to realize how far he is drifting from his own communion. Leo delights in the comedies of Ariosto and Bibbiena no less than in Erasmus’s edition of the New Testament.’ He protects the Jews, and actually has a Jewish doctor. Erasmus singles out his tolerance as one of his chief merits.

In the North, though not in the South, Greek rose from the dead with the New Testament in her hand. Erasmus published it in 1516 under the title of the Novum Instrumentum, and indeed it proved to be a new instrument of thought. Though it was printed at Basle, it was the result of his stay in Cambridge. “A shock thus was given’ writes Mark Pattison, “to the credit of the clergy in the province of literature equal to that given in the province of science by the astronomical discoveries of the seventeenth century.” Truth was no longer a treasure to be discreetly hidden in a napkin. The Novum Instrumentum, like the Novum Organum of Bacon, appealed to facts, not to authority.

Further, Erasmus wrote that,

“I fight absolutely the opinion of those who refuse to the common people the right to read the divine letters in the popular language, as if Christ had taught unintelligent mysteries, understood only by some theologians. … I would wish that women should read the Gospels, read the Epistles of Paul, and I would to God that these books were translated into all languages, so as to be known, not only by the Scotch and Irish, but by the Turks and Saracens. … To make them understood is surely the first step. They might be ridiculed by many, but some would take them to heart. I long that the husbandman should sing portions of them to himself as he follows the plough, that the weaver should hum them to the tune of his shuttle, that the traveler should beguile with their stories during the tedium of his journey.”

Authority also received rude blows from comments like those on Matthew 16:18,“Upon this rock I will build my church.” The author expresses his surprise that these words should be applied exclusively to the Roman pontiff, “to whom they undoubtedly apply first of all, seeing that he is the head of the Christian Church; but they apply, not to him only, but to all Christians.” On Matthew 17:5, “Hear ye him,” he points out that “Christ is the only teacher who has been appointed by God Himself. Such authority has been committed to no theologian, to no bishop,to no pope or prince.”Authority is to be purified, not destroyed. Too many bishops forget that they are pastors “called to feed, not to shear the sheep.” The spiritual character of ecclesiastical power is paramount.

He tells Henry Bullock, who may have attended his Greek class in 1511, that he is glad to find that his New Testament is applauded at Cambridge, although he has heard from very credible authority that there is a college there which has put out a decree that the book shall on no account enter its precincts. Think of men so absurd as to condemn a work they had not read,or reading could not understand. They had only heard, over their cups, or in knots in the market, that a new work had appeared which was to pluck out the eyes of the theologians like crows.

Erasmus believed in parchment, though the parchment was that of learning, but now and then he was tempted to try the steel of abuse. The years that followed the edition of his New Testament brought much disappointment to the scholar. He saw the steady and peaceful growth of reform beginning to be broken by men who thought more of steel than of parchment. Shut out by temperament from the whirl of active life, his mind rose superior to his frail body and moved habitually on the plane of great thoughts and bold ideas. The ills of the day” in Church and State” his diagnosis reduced to one cause, and that was ignorance, ignorance of what Christ taught, ignorance of what the Bible meant, ignorance of what great contributions the Greek and the Latin had made to the education of the human race. These evils could all be cured by knowledge,and it was his duty to supply it.

The facts of life told the scholar plainly that there was duality in the soul of man, that evil and good were continually striving for the mastery. For him there could be no dualism in his outlook on life. Knowledge was destined to grow from more to more, and similarly there was to be more reverence within us. Mind and soul were to be in accord, making a complete unity: a synthesis, not a separation, is the aim of his method.

As Erasmus reconciles faith and works, so he reconciles nature and grace. We are free before grace so we can accept it or reject it, though our virtues are the work of God. Grace is offered to us, and by our free will we receive it. If we practice good works for the glory of God, God will requite us.

His solution is plainly Augustinian. Those who are the farthest from Pelagius attribute the utmost to grace, almost nothing to free will, without, however, suppressing it; they deny that man can will good without a particular grace, that he cannot take it in hand, make progress, and accomplish it completely without the essential and continual help of His grace. Their view seems right to me.” “Man, however, must co-operate with God. The gift of grace is God’s, but man’s share is the reception of it. Man is not condemned save by his own fault.” The will of man remains in the last resort incorporating itself with the Divine action: it is a reality, not a sheer illusion, making for liberty, not for serfdom.

To understand Erasmus, one needs to see his a reverential attitude to the past: it has handed down truth to the present. He is just as willing as the School men to receive the teaching of the Church. Unlike the preceding generation, he exhibits no interest in such matters as the superiority of the Pope to a General Council, and vice versa. He is well aware that it is the practice which produces the theory, and not the theory the practice.

Nevertheless, he firmly believes, and nothing ever shook this conviction –that the Church has the right to define dogma, to authorize its definitions, and to order the permanent recital of the Apostles Creed. “The Church,” he is amply convinced, “never goes wrong in whatever pertains to salvation. … I believe with the utmost implicit confidence what I read in the Bible and the Apostles Creed, and I seek nothing beyond that.” “Humorous people there are,” Erasmus quietly points out, who believe in the infallibility of the Pope on condition that they can submit it to their own infallibility. However, he maintains that “what comes from the authority of a General Council is a celestial oracle, and it has a weight, if not equal to that of the Gospels, at least equivalent.” “It is true that they can abuse their power, that they can establish unjust or evil laws, irreconcilable with the inward liberty of the Spirit. What does it matter? The liberty of a Christian is,” according to the Colloquies,” not to be able to do what he wishes, but to be always ready to do,in the fervor of the Spirit, with a light and contented heart, what he is ordered, rather as a son than as a slave.”

Freedom from rigid definition is the Erasmian ideal. Dogma there is and must be. There is no need to add fresh articles to the Creed. The Church says Deus homo: St. Anselm asks, Cur Deus homo? All that St. Anselm says is an approach to truth: no man, however,need take it as de fide. Thinkers propose, the Church imposes. Thinkers seek,the Church finds. They explain forms of truth: the Church crystallizes them into dogma. Erasmus felt with Montaigne that it is putting a high value on the opinions of a writer to burn men who do not see eye to eye with him. For knowledge, if found accurate, he had nothing but respect.

Controversy Erasmus disliked even when it served the cause of truth. War he disliked much more intensely, for he felt that it tended to harden men’s views about other men and the causes on whose behalf they fought. Studies, he tells Servatius, are cold, but wars are hot. In those days of perpetual war it required no little courage to plead the cause of peace before princes. The matters of the Gospel must be treated in the spirit of the Gospel. Many humanists desired peace and goodwill among men because it secured their own peace. Erasmus, on the contrary, loved peace and ensued it for its own sake. Like St. Augustine, Dante, and Marsilius he ranks it as the highest earthly good.