Desiderius Erasmus and the Revival of Christian Scholarship

How one man’s love for Christ revived the Church’s study of the original text of Scripture

Who was Desiderius Erasmus? I began Made by a Carpenter based upon a quote from this man, who said, “By a Carpenter mankind was made, and only by that Carpenter can mankind be remade.” Most of my readers are no doubt puzzled by this name. “Desiderius Erasmus?” I can hear many of you saying, “yeah, who was he? Why should I care?” And yet the stark irony of that bewilderment is that if you are a Christian, then your life, as well as the lives of every single Christian after him, has been monumentally affected by this obscure figure.

So what about Erasmus made him important? If you have a Bible with you, open it to the publisher notes. Every translation you might have, New American Standard, English Standard Version, New International Version, Holman Christian Standard, you name it, all have one thing in common: They all strongly assert their intent to faithfully adhere to the intent of the authors of the biblical books, drawing from the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts of the Bible. But many of these texts had been forgotten by and lost to the Catholic Church ever since St. Jerome translated the Bible into the more spoken Latin language in the late 300s. In the early 1500s, Erasmus would be the first to revive study of the original texts of the Bible.

A Catholic priest, he was one of the foremost scholars of the Reformation and Renaissance period. Driven by a love for and knowledge of Christ, he desired to reinvigorate the Church by reforming the education of the priesthood. Abhorring the immorality, extortion, ignorance, and violence of the Catholic Church, he hoped that increasing the knowledge of the Bible among the Church clergy and leadership would solve its ills. With this in mind, he sought first the oldest manuscripts of the original New Testament, hoping to revise and improve the official Latin translation of the Church. But while Erasmus’s proposed reforms were never realized, consolidating the once-forgotten Greek texts of the New Testament into a Greek-Latin polyglot inspired other reform-minded individuals to deep scriptural inquiry, prompting reform of the Christian realm on a scale so astronomical that the world would never be the same.

Early Life

Erasmus was born in either 1466 or 1467 in Rotterdam, a province in the Netherlands. Erasmus was born illegitimate and destitute. Like many in his day, Erasmus’s poverty drove him to the Church for support, and he became a monk in the Augustinian Order.

Yet though Erasmus joined the Church because of poverty, he was unlike many of his peers in that he craved understanding of God and of the Scriptures. While many priests and monks were careless, immoral, and uneducated, Erasmus was a devout believer and loved the Lord, and was thus driven to seek out as much knowledge of the Lord as he possibly could. Life as a monk exposed the young Erasmus, a man with great intellect, to the ignorance and immorality of his fellow clergy. As Martin Luther would discover later, the clergy were illiterate and had no knowledge of Scripture, they were drunkards, and they were sexually immoral. Already uncomfortable leading a monk’s self-denying lifestyle, watching his fellow monks live flippantly and ignorantly had an even greater impact on Erasmus, to the point that he wrote derogatorily about his colleagues. It would be these factors that would drive Erasmus to seek reform for the Catholic Church in his later years.

The Reform-Minded Scholar

In the years before the Reformation, Erasmus dedicated himself to a life of scholarly study. Given a position in the priesthood in 1491, Erasmus was finally able to pursue his studies with renewed vigor. Where the monastery had hindered and derided him for seeking knowledge, the priesthood afforded him the ability to learn the Classics in France. There his understanding of Latin improved dramatically. Says Philip Schaff, “He now gave himself up entirely to study in the University of Paris and at Orleans. His favorite authors were Cicero, Terence, Plutarch, and Lucian among the classics, Jerome among the fathers, and Laurentius Valla the commentator.” With such education, Erasmus began travelling and writing extensively, making a name for himself amongst Church leadership.

Erasmus’s travels convinced him of a greater need to educate the clergy en masse. Misleading preachers, ignorant monks, and misunderstandings related to the sacraments led Erasmus write The Praise of Folly in 1511. This book was a scathing satire of the immorality, ignorance, dogmatic adherence to doctrine within the Church. An hilarious work, Erasmus personifies Folly, who praises herself and the work she has done throughout history. Obnoxious and loudmouthed much like Folly from Proverbs 9, Folly praises her work in “helping” monks, leadership, and the Pope serve God and the Church well.  Erasmus’s description of monks is of particular note. Remembering his days as a monk, where he was uncomfortable and looked down upon, he was most harsh to this group of the Catholic Church.

From In Praise of Folly: “And next these come those that commonly call themselves the religious and monks, most false in both titles, when both a great part of them are farthest from religion, and no men swarm thicker in all places than themselves.” While shocking enough, Erasmus saved a personal missile for the second criticism of monks. Robert Drummond writes that in Erasmus’s monastic days, his fellow monks derided his scholarly pursuits as ungodly. “The classical studies of Erasmus were naturally looked upon with great jealousy by the brethren of his order, who were accustomed to condemn all profane learning under the name of “poetry,” and would raise the finger of warning against any one having a literary reputation, crying out “Beware; that man is a poet, he is no Christian!” Surely, Erasmus must have had this on his mind when he wrote, “For first, they reckon it one of the main points of piety if they are so illiterate that they can’t so much as read. And then when they run over their offices, which they carry about them, rather by tale than understanding, they believe the gods more than ordinarily pleased with their braying.” Clearly, Erasmus still had his axe to grind with monks, and went on to deride their drunkenness and sexual immorality. Perhaps the most biting criticism of Catholic monks, however, can be found in this phrase, “And yet, like pleasant fellows, with all this vileness, ignorance, rudeness, and impudence, they represent to us, for so they call it, the lives of the apostles.”Erasmus, disdainful of the base sinfulness that he had known and left, did not pull his punches.

Yet Erasmus was nearly equal in his criticism of the papacy, bishops and cardinals. In the words of Folly, Church leaders are no different than lavish princes, and “…feed themselves only, and for the care of their flock either put it over to Christ or lay it all on their suffragans…” Folly thinks ironically about what a bishop might have were he adherent to the Scripture and to his own role in the Church, that he might lead a “blameless life…[have] a perfect knowledge of the Old and New Testaments…careful looking after the flock committed to their charge; what the cross born before them, but victory over all earthly affections—these, I say, and many of the like kind should anyone truly consider, would he not live a sad and troublesome life?” Instead, the bishops lived an opulent lifestyle, which Folly praised.

Erasmus was not finished with his criticism, but instead turned his attention to the Pope. Erasmus was singularly informed of Catholic theology in this section. Where Protestants would later argue that the Pope was a mere man, Erasmus followed the tradition of the Catholic Church, asserting that the Pope “supplies the place of Christ.” And yet it was this fact that made Erasmus’s criticism all the more harsh, for if indeed the Pope supplied such a role, it was his duty to emulate Christ in everything. Instead, many popes enjoyed “…so much wealth, so much honor, so much riches, so many victories, so many offices, so many dispensations, so much tribute, so many pardons; such horses, such mules, such guards,” while ignoring the unique spiritual position they held over the people of the Church. If they served with a Christlike mindset, he wrote, they would “imitate His life, to wit His poverty, labor, doctrine, cross, and contempt of life.” The implication was that many popes of the recent past, as well as the current Pope, were not imitators of Christ. Rather than lead the Church in devotion and worship of Christ, they ignored their duties for the pursuit of pleasure. Loving the power and influence the papacy afforded them, the popes exercised their power flippantly: “interdictions, hangings, heavy burdens, reproofs, anathemas, executions in effigy, and that terrible thunderbolt of excommunication, with the very sight of which they sink men’s souls beneath the bottom of hell.” Erasmus’s theology again informs his writing here, as he attributes such powers as from the Apostle Paul. For all his desire to adhere to Scripture, he nonetheless affirmed Church tradition.

Erasmus’s message was clear. It was the duty to adhere to Scripture and to live their lives serving and teaching the body of Christ. In this way, Gospel could be more rightly proclaimed and it’s the laypeople could build their knowledge and faith in God. In shear wit, Erasmus uses Folly’s self-praise for misleading the leaders of the Church to outline his ideas for reform. His satire was well received by the populace. This work boosted Erasmus’s popularity among those who would later ignite the flames of Reformation, and they saw him as an ally. For his part, he found in them vindication for his beliefs.

Yet Erasmus was still very Catholic. In the words of Peter Schaff, “He had never been a Protestant, and never meant to be one.” This would significantly affect his relationship to Martin Luther and the Reformers in the 1510s-1520s, for while he originally agreed with them, he could not reconcile himself to the Protestants when they broke from the Church. Erasmus rebuked the Church to save the Church, not to split it into factions. While Luther desired the same, he eventually saw reconciliation as an impossibility. Erasmus’s reputation thus dropped among Reformers, as well as Catholics who saw him as a former ally of the Reformation.

The Novum Instrumentum omne and the Reformation

After he wrote In Praise of Folly, Erasmus became something of a celebrity scholar and theologian in many Catholic circles as his work continued. He became especially famous for his devotional material, instructing all classes and all ages on how to live in light of Christ and within Christian societies. Focusing on helping Christians to relate personally to Christ, his works reflected the life he led and were quite popular. In 1510, one of his former students invited him to England for a visit, where Erasmus would meet John Colet. Perhaps one could argue that Colet had more impact on the life of Erasmus than anyone else who had influenced him, for it was Colet who convinced him to go back as fully as he could to the Scriptures to understand God. “Colet taught him that theology must return from scholasticism to the Scriptures, and from dry doctrines to practical wisdom.” As such, enthralled by deeper exploration of the New Testament, he studied the original Greek texts themselves at Oxford.

Henk Nellen writes that to Erasmus, making the current Latin copies of the Bible more accurate to the original languages would help in devotional life, particularly from that which was taught in the New Testament. As earlier stated, Erasmus was not known for merely compiling a Greek New Testament but a Greek-Latin polyglot. Erasmus’s goal was to correct the Latin Vulgate according to the original Greek texts of New Testament to make better biblical exegetical and devotional studies. For this purpose, Erasmus developed a text that allowed readers of the Scriptures to compare the Greek to the Latin so that they too could study and understand the textual decisions that he made.

The results of Erasmus’s work were shocking. Says Nellen, “His objective was to offer a translation that profited from exegetical research and did away with textual corruption. Approximately forty percent of the Vulgate text was altered in Erasmus’s new translation.” Erasmus’s New Testament, once completed in 1516, earned condemnation from his fellow priests and Catholic Church leaders. His editing had changed both the Lord’s Prayer, a prayer precious to Catholic liturgy. In addition, he struck from 1 John 5:7 this phrase, “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one” and replaced it with this phrase, “For there are three that testify.” Priests hissed and growled at Erasmus’s change, for the verse was key to Catholic Trinitarian theology. From Erika Rummel, “There was an uproar also about his omission of the so-called Comma Johanneum at I John 5:7, one of the proofs for the divine trinity, for which Erasmus had found no evidence in the Greek manuscripts or support in the Fathers.” Erasmus’s project, intended to further exegetical study of the Bible, seemed only to alienate his fellow Catholics.

It was not true of the Protestant camp. In fact, it was compiling the original Scripture for the body to read and his other calls for reform that caused Protestants to see him as an ally when Luther kickstarted the Reformation in 1517. Throughout the Reformation, he called for cooperation between Luther’s followers and the Catholics. Whatever his theological viewpoints, his main hope was for unity in the body of Christ. A supporter of reform, however, he was not a Reformer.  “Considered a forerunner of the Reformation by his contemporaries, he broke with Martin Luther over the latter’s sectarianism.” Erasmus could not condone what he believed to be against Scripture. To him, if the body of Christ was to be unified, then reform had to be accomplished within the Church, not outside it as Luther did. But this hurt his reputation. As the saying of the day went, “Erasmus laid the egg, Luther hatched it.” For this reason, the Church had Erasmus prove himself Catholic by debating Luther over the Catholic view of free will and the Protestant view of predestination. Erasmus caved. He debated Luther, and many on both sides felt Erasmus had lost the debate. More than that, however, he had lost his reputation. No longer did Catholics trust him, and Protestants believed he had betrayed them.

Conclusion

So what does his life mean for today’s Erasmus was a man of conviction and intelligence whose greatest desire was to see the Church rededicate itself to adherence to Christlike behavior and scriptural inquiry. To that end, he sought compile the original texts of the Scriptures by creating the Novum Instrumentum omne. For the believer today, a lesson can be learned from Erasmus’s dedication and thirst for knowledge.

What is this lesson? Be ever devoted to Christ and to Scripture. Erasmus sought to serve Christ with everything he had, devoting himself to bringing the original texts of the Bible to the Church so that it could worship and serve God properly. Think of it like this: Today, those believers of all backgrounds (Catholic, Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, Charismatic, you name it) have the benefit of translations from the original languages of Scripture that we may study and interpret it properly. But without the toil of men like Erasmus, you wouldn’t have the Bible that you have today. He labored that Christians would reap the spiritual benefits of his work. Now we may enjoy the Scriptures he labored to reintroduce to the Christian population.


References

Drummond, Robert Blackley. Erasmus, His Life and Character as Shown in His Correspondence and Works, Volume I. No publisher available, 1873. Scribd, https://www.scribd.com/read/262694044/Erasmus-His-Life-And-Character-As-Shown-In-His-Correspondence-And-Works-Vol-I#

Erasmus, Desiderius. In Praise of Folly. No publisher available, 1509. Christian Classics Ethereal Library, https://ccel.org/ccel/erasmus/folly/folly.iii.html

Nellen, Henk, and Jan Bloemendal, “Erasmus’s Biblical Project,” Church History and Religious Culture 96, no. 4 (2016): 595-635.

Rummel, Erika. “Desiderius Erasmus,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University. September 27, 2017. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/erasmus/

Schaff, Peter. History of the Christian Church, Volume VII, 2nd Ed. Dallas: Electronic Bible Society, 1998. Christian Classics Ethereal Library, https://ccel.org/ccel/schaff/hcc7/hcc7.i.html

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