This episode of CS is titled Erasmus.
As we begin, I once again want to do a brief, and I promise it will be brief, summary of the threads that conspired to weave the tapestry of the Reformation. Others might refer to them less as threads that weaved a tapestry as those that frayed in the unravelling of the Church caused by a pack of trouble-makers. The reason I’m compelled to do all this summarizing is because of the massive sea-change coming in our study and the need to understand it wasn’t just some malcontents who woke up one day and decided to bail on a healthy church. Things had been bad for a long time and the call for reform had been heard for a couple hundred years.
The Western European Church of the 14th and 15th C’s experienced a major crisis of authority. This crisis came from challenges both within and without. They combined to plant seeds of doubt in the minds of many about the credibility and legitimacy of Church leaders. Let’s review some of the things they’d done, and that happened to the Church, to create the crisis.
Due to the politics of late medieval Europe, Pope Clement V moved the papal seat to Avignon, France, in 1309 in what’s called the “Babylonian Captivity of the Church” because the Pope came under the influence of the French throne. When another Pope was elected in Rome, the Church was faced with 2 men who claimed the title of “Vicar of Christ.” This Papal Schism confused the people of Europe and stirred strong feelings that the office of Pope was more a political fixture than a spiritual office. At the insistence of the Holy Roman Emperor, the Council of Constance ended the schism. But the solution raised serious questions about the authority of the papacy, further dividing church leaders and distressing the people of Europe.
In addition to these political shenanigans, the Church was marked by widespread corruption and fraud. Simony, the buying and selling of ecclesiastical offices, was common. Immorality among monks, priests, bishops and cardinals was at some times and places, not even hidden. The Church spent a fortune acquiring thousands of relics for its cathedrals and paying for them with the selling of indulgences, which we’ll talk about soon.
The Inquisition had terrorized whole regions of Europe, especially in Spain and while the Church justified its actions saying it was rooting our dangerous heresy, many knew some victims of the Inquisition were innocent. The Church simply wanted their property and wealth and had used the Inquisition as a means of enriching itself.
With the birth of the Renaissance and a new open-mindedness about thinking outside the realm of official authority, the Church became an object of ridicule and satire in pamphlets and books that were readily available with the invention of the printing press.
Let me be clear. Some of the harshest criticism of the Church came, not from outsiders, but from faithful priests and monks disgusted with the corruption and error they saw among their peers.
As a reaction to the stultifying academic pursuits of Scholasticism, there was a popular movement all across Europe known as Mysticism, in which people simply wanted to “feel” their faith and sought make contact with the divine through meditation and a more personal link to God than going through the official priesthood.
Most significant was the movement known as The Brethren of Common Life. Their most famous spokesman was Thomas à Kempis whose little book On the Imitation of Christ continues to be a widely read devotional classic. The Brethren stood in opposition to the monastic orders which for the most part had become centers of corruption. The Brethren breathed new spiritual life into the church. They stressed personal devotion to Jesus through meditative study, confession of sin, and imitating Christ. They emphasized holiness and simplicity in lifestyle. In many ways, the Brethren prefigured the Reformers of the 16th C.
With the Bible being translated into the common tongue, no longer did people have to rely on a priest telling them what it said.
The 16th C world was one of astonishing change. Medieval civilization, dominated by an institutional Church was disappearing. Modern nation-states challenged the Church for political and economic supremacy, and the voyages of discovery made the world seem smaller at the same time new worlds were opening. The Renaissance of Northern Italy saw many turn from a hide-bound and superstitious Catholicism to the romanticized glories of ancient Greece and Rome.
Into this changing world stepped one à Desiderius Erasmus.
Taking the pulse of the times, Erasmus ridiculed the Catholic church with biting satire. His works were wildly popular. In his most famous, Praise of Folly written in 1509, Erasmus took jabs at the church’s immorality, corruption, and decadence. He ridiculed such superstitions as fanatical devotion to relics, stories of bleeding Communion bread, and the cult of the saints. In another work, he depicted Saint Peter railing against Pope Julius II for his luxurious and opulent lifestyle and military conquests.
But it was in 1516 that Erasmus published his most important and influential work—a Greek edition of the NT. He examined and compared the available NT manuscripts and citations from the Church Fathers. The result was an accurate NT Greek text that became the NT of the Reformation.
One epigram regarding the Reformation states, “Erasmus laid the egg that Luther hatched.”
The illegitimate son of a Dutch priest, Erasmus lived in search of knowledge, in pursuit of piety, in love with books, and oppressed by the fear of poverty. Along the way, his writings and scholarship started a theological earthquake that didn’t stop until European Christendom was torn in two.
Born in Rotterdam and orphaned by the plague, Erasmus was sent from the school of St. Lebuin’s—which taught classical learning and the humanities—to a school run by the Brethren of the Common Life. There he learned an emphasis on a personal relationship with God but detested the strict rules of monastic life and intolerant theologians. They intended to teach humility, he later recalled, by breaking the students’ spirits.
Being poor with no prospects, Erasmus joined the Augustinians. He wanted to travel, gain some academic elbow room, and leave behind the, as he called them, “barbarians” who discouraged him from classical studies. As soon as he was ordained a priest in 1492, he became secretary to the bishop of Cambrai, who sent him to Paris to study theology.
He hated it there too. The dorms stank of urine, the food was atrocious, studies mechanical, and the discipline brutal. He began a career in writing and traveling that took him to most of the countries of Europe. Though his health was often poor, Erasmus was driven by a desire to seek out the best theologians of his day. On a trip to England in 1499, he complained of bad beer, the uncouth nature of the English, and terrible weather, but >> he met Thomas More, who became a friend for life.
On that same trip he heard John Colet teach from the Scriptures, not just quote from the commentaries he’d studied in Paris. Colet, who later became dean of St. Paul’s, encouraged Erasmus to become a “primitive theologian”- that is, someone who studied Scripture like the church Fathers, not like the argumentative scholastics who’d dominated theology for the last hundred years.
So, Erasmus devoted himself to learning the Koine or Common Greek in which the NT was written. The result was his most significant work: an edition of the NT in original Greek, published in 1516. Accompanying it were study notes as well as his own Latin translation, correcting over 600 errors in Jerome’s Vulgate.
Two of the most noteworthy praises of Erasmus’s work came from Pope Leo X and from a German monk named Martin Luther—who, a year later, launched the Reformation.
Before that turning point however, which would eventually consume Erasmus, he became famous for his other writings. There were plenty of them to be famous for. By the 1530s, some 15% of all the books sold were written by Erasmus.
Historians refer to Erasmus as a humanist, but that label has a very different meaning than it does in today. A humanist in the 15th C referred to someone who studied the humanities, that is, the social sciences of language, history, art and other subjects concerned with culture and society. But Erasmus was too brilliant a mind to simply study the humanities; he felt an obligation to better society. So he wrote to confront and correct the errors he felt had crept into the Church, an institution he knew had by the far the biggest influence in shaping culture. He found he had great skill in the use of satire to make his point and people enjoyed reading his books and tracts.
Those books brought him fame, as did his Greek NT. This and his attacks on the church caught Martin Luther’s attention, who wrote asking for support.
The two never met, but their fates were entwined. Erasmus’s enemies accused him of inspiring Luther who was accused of breaking up God’s Church. Erasmus found much he liked in Luther’s writings, describing him to Pope Leo X as “a mighty trumpet of Gospel truth.” At the same time, he privately told his printer to stop printing Luther’s writings because he didn’t want his own efforts to be identified with Luther’s.
For 4 years, Erasmus pleaded for moderation on both sides of the divide Luther’s work caused. When pressed, he sided with the Pope. Still, he hated the bickering and intolerance on both sides; saying, “I detest dissension because it goes both against the teachings of Christ and against a secret inclination of nature. 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.”
His mediating position satisfied neither side. He said, “My only wish is that now that I am old, I be allowed to enjoy the results of my efforts. But both sides reproach me and seek to coerce me. 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.”
Indeed, Luther attacked him as a Moses who would die in the wilderness without entering the Promised Land. And the Roman Church banned his writings.