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Erasmus, a.k.a. Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, (October 27, 1466 - July 12, 1536) was a Dutch humanist and theologian. He was born Geert Geertsen in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Erasmus died in 1536 in Basel, Switzerland. One of the most famous and amusing quotes from the noted scholar and translator Erasmus was, "When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes."
Information as to his family and early life comes from a few meager accounts written or suggested by himself at a somewhat advanced age and from many but vague references in his writings at all periods of his life. He was doubtless born out of wedlock, well cared for by his parents till their early death, and then given the best education open to a young man of his day in a series of monastic or semi-monastic schools. All this early education is made by him in the light of later experience to appear like one long conspiracy to force him into the monastic life. He was admitted to the priesthood and took the monastic vows at about the age of twenty-five, but there is no record that he ever exercised the priestly functions, and monasticism was one of the chief objects of his attack in his lifelong assault upon the evils of the Church.
Almost immediately after his consecration the way was opened to him for study at the University of Paris, then the chief seat of the later scholastic learning, but already beginning to feel the influence of the revived classic culture of Italy. From this time on Erasmus led the life of an independent scholar, independent of country, of academic ties, of religious allegiance, of everything that could interfere with the free development of his intellect and the freedom of his literary expression. The chief centers of his activity were Paris, Louvain, England, and Basel; yet it could never be said that he was identified with any one of these. His residences in England were fruitful in the making of lifelong friendships with the leaders of English thought in the stirring days of Henry VIII.—John Colet, Thomas More, Thomas Linacre, and William Grocyn. He held at Cambridge an honorable position as Lady Margaret professor of divinity, and there seems to have been no reason except his unconquerable aversion to a routine life, why he should not have spent his days as an English professor. He stayed at Queens' College, Cambridge and may have been an alumnus.
He was offered many positions of honor and profit in the academic world, but declined them all on one or another pretext, preferring the uncertain, but as it proved sufficient rewards of independent literary activity. In Italy he spent three years (1506-09), part of the time in connection with the publishing house of Aldus Manutius at Venice.
The residence at Louvain exposed Erasmus to the petty criticism of men nearer to him in blood and political connections, but hostile to all the principles of literary and religious progress to which he was devoting his life. From this lack of sympathy, which he always represented as persecution, he sought refuge in the more congenial atmosphere of Basel, where under the shelter of Swiss hospitality he could express himself with freedom and where he was always surrounded by devoted friends. Here he was associated for many years with the great publisher Froben, and hither came the multitude of his admirers from all quarters of Europe.
Erasmus's literary productivity began comparatively late in his life. It was not until he had made himself master of a telling Latin style that he undertook to express himself on all current subjects of literature and religion. His revolt against the forms of Church life did not proceed from any questionings as to the truth of the traditional doctrine, nor from any hostility to the organization of the Church itself. Rather, he felt called upon to use his learning in a purification of the doctrine and in a liberalizing of the institutions of Christianity (at a point in time where “liberalization” actually meant the opposite of what it means today!) He began as a scholar, trying to free the methods of scholarship from the rigidity and formalism of medieval traditions; but he was not satisfied with this. He conceived of himself as, above all else, a preacher of righteousness. It was his lifelong conviction that what was needed to regenerate Europe was sound learning applied frankly and fearlessly to the administration of public affairs in Church and State. It is this conviction that gives unity and consistency to a life which at first eight seems to have been full of fatal contradictions. Erasmus was a marked individual, holding himself aloof from all entangling obligations; yet he was in a singularly true sense the center of the literary movement of his time. In his correspondence he put himself in touch with more than five hundred men of the highest importance in the world of politics and of thought, and his advice on all kinds of subjects was eagerly sought, if none too readily followed.
His more serious writings begin early with the Enchiridion Militis Christiani, the "Manual (or Dagger) of the Christian Gentleman" (1503). In this little volume Erasmus outlines the views of the normal Christian life which he was to spend the rest of his days in elaborating. The key-note of it all is sincerity. The chief evil of the day, he says, is formalism, a respect for traditions, a regard for what other people think essential, but never a thought of what the true teaching of Christ may be. Another of Erasmus’s books worthy of mention was, Praise of Folly, dedicated to his friend Sir Thomas More.
While in England Erasmus began the systematic examination of manuscripts of the New Testament to prepare for a new edition and Latin translation. This edition was published by Froben of Basel in 1516 and was the basis of most of the scientific study of the Bible during the Reformation period. It was the first attempt on the part of a competent and liberal-minded scholar to ascertain what the writers of the New Testament had actually said. The Greek text produced by Erasmus is known as textus receptus and was the basis for the King James Version of the New Testament. Erasmus dedicated his work ironically, to Pope Leo X., and he justly regarded this work as his chief service to the cause of a sound Christianity. Immediately after he began the publication of his Paraphrases of the New Testament, a popular presentation of the contents of the several books. These, like all the writings of Erasmus, were in Latin, but they were at once translated into the common languages of the European peoples, a process which received the hearty approval of Erasmus himself.
The most significant contribution of Erasmus to the Protestant Reformation was undoubtedly his publication of his 1516 Greek-Latin New Testament. It was this book that was used as the primary source-text for Martin Luther to translate the New Testament into German for the first time in 1522. It was this book that was used as the primary source-text for William Tyndale to translate the New Testament into English for the first time in 1526.
The outbreak of the Lutheran movement in the year following the publication of Erasmus’s Greek-Latin New Testament brought the severest test of Erasmus's personal and scholarly character. It made the issue between European society and the Roman Church system so clear that no man could quite escape the summons to range himself on one side or the other of the great debate. Erasmus, at the height of his literary fame, was inevitably called upon to take sides, but partisanship in any issue which he was not at liberty himself to define was foreign equally to his nature and his habits. In all his criticism of clerical follies and abuses he had always carefully hedged himself about with protests that he was not attacking church institutions themselves and had no enmity toward the persons of churchmen. The world had laughed at his satire, but only a few obstinate reactionaries had seriously interfered with his activities. He had a right to believe that his work so far had commended itself to the best minds and also to the dominant powers in the religious world.
There can be no doubt that Erasmus was in sympathy with the main points in the Lutheran criticism of the Church. For Luther personally he had and expressed the greatest respect, and Luther always spoke with admiration of his superior learning. Luther would have gone to great lengths in securing his cooperation in a work which seemed only the natural outcome of his own. When Erasmus hesitated or refused this seemed to the upright and downright Luther a mean avoidance of responsibility explicable only as cowardice or unsteadiness of purpose, and this has generally been the Protestant judgment of later days. On the other hand the Roman Catholic party was equally desirous of holding on to the services of a man who had so often declared his loyalty to the principles it was trying to maintain, and his half-heartedness in declaring himself now brought upon him the suspicion of disloyalty from this side.When Erasmus was charged—and very justly—with having "laid the egg that Luther hatched" he half admitted the truth of the charge, but said he “had expected quite another kind of a bird!”
In their early correspondence Luther expressed in unmeasured terms his admiration for all Erasmus had done in the cause of a sound and reasonable Christianity, and exhorted with him now to put the seal upon his work by definitely casting in his lot with the Lutheran party. Erasmus replied with many expressions of regard, but declined to commit himself to any party attitude. His argument was that to do so would endanger his position as a leader in the movement for pure scholarship which be regarded as his real work in life. Only through that position as an independent scholar could he hope to influence the reform of religion. The constructive value of Luther's work was mainly in furnishing a new doctrinal basis for the previously scattered attempts at reform.
In reviving the half forgotten principle of the Augustinian theology Luther had furnished the needed impulse to that personal interest in religion which is the essence of Protestantism. This was precisely what Erasmus could not approve. He dreaded any change in the doctrine of the Church and believed that there was room enough within existing formulas for the kind of reform he valued most. Twice in the course of the great discussion he allowed himself to enter the field of doctrinal controversy, a field foreign alike to his nature and his previous practise. One of the topics formally treated by him was the freedom of the will, the crucial point in the whole Augustinian system. In his De libero arbitrio diatribe sive collatio (1524), he analyzes with great cleverness and in perfect good temper the Lutheran exaggeration, as it seemed to him, of the obvious limitations upon human freedom. As his habit was, he lays down both sides of the argument and shows that each had its element of truth. His position was that Man was bound to sin, but that after all he had a right to the forgiving mercy of God, if only he would seek this through the means offered him by the Church itself. It was an easy-going Semi-Pelagianism, humane in its practise, but opening the way to those very laxities and perversions which Erasmus and the Reformers alike were combating. The "Diatribe," clever as it was, could not lead men to any definite action, and this was precisely its offense to the Lutherans.
Thus, as the visible outcome of his reformatory activities Erasmus found himself at the close of his life at odds with both the great parties. His last years were embittered by controversies with men toward whom he was drawn by many ties of taste and sympathy. Notable among these was his passage at arms with Ulrich von Hutten, a brilliant, but erratic genius, who had thrown himself with all his heart into the Lutheran cause and had declared that Erasmus, if he had a spark of honesty about him, would do the same. In his reply, Spongia adversus aspergines Hutteni (1523), he displays, better than almost anywhere else, his skill in twisting words and phrases to suit the purpose of the moment. He accuses Hutten of having misinterpreted his utterances about reform and reiterates his determination never to take sides in the division of parties.
When the city of Basel was definitely and officially "reformed" in 1529, Erasmus gave up his residence there and settled in the imperial town of Freiburg-im-Breisgau. It would seem as if he found it easier to maintain his neutrality under Roman Catholic than under Protestant conditions. His literary activity continued with out much abatement, chiefly on the lines of religious and didactic composition. The most important work of this last period is the Ecclesiastes or "Gospel Preacher" (Basel, 1535), in which he brings out the function of preaching as the most important office of the Christian priest, an emphasis which shows how essentially Protestant his inner thought of Christianity was. The same impression comes from his little tract of 1533 on "Preparation for Death," in which the emphasis throughout is on the importance of a good life as the essential condition of a happy death.
For unknown reasons Erasmus found himself drawn once more to the happiest of his homes, at Basel, where he returned in 1535 after an absence of six years. Here, in the midst of the group of Protestant scholars who had long been his truest friends, and, so far as is known, without relations of any sort with the Roman Catholic Church, he died.
The extraordinary popularity of his books, however, has been shown in the immense number of editions and translations that have appeared from the sixteenth century until now, and in the undiminished interest excited by his elusive but fascinating personality.