Devotions in Church History: Erasmus
Erasmus–The Scholar Who Changed the World
Acts 17:10-12a –The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Many of them therefore believed.
The times they were a-changing
Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam was born into a rapidly changing world. Guttenburg’s printing press was in its first decades, the Americas were discovered before Erasmus was thirty, and a few decades later a German monk shook the world with his protest against indulgences. Before Luther, however, there was Erasmus. In an age of church corruption, lay superstition, and religious persecution, Erasmus stands in contrast. While unwilling to go along with Luther’s Reformation, he significantly laid the groundwork for it.
He was the bastard son of a priest and his mistress. When he was a teenager, both his parents died of the plague. The impoverished Erasmus trained for the Priesthood but found the corruption and hierarchy of the Roman Church discouraging. For the rest of his life, he found a different way to minister–impacting the minds and hearts of Western Europe through his books. He was an independent scholar. He was the first man to ever make a living writing and selling books. Aside from being both clever and funny, these books criticized corruption and encouraged a return to New Testament Christianity.
The greatest author of his time
Erasmus was a humanist, not in the philosophical sense, but in his approach to education. He was a student of human languages, communication, and the art of ideas. As comfortable in his native Dutch as he was in classical Latin, and Biblical Greek. He was also a student of old texts. He omnivorously studied ancient manuscripts of the church fathers, classical Roman and Greek authors, and also the Scriptures.
His most famous work is probably his 1511 Praise of Folly. The book is a hilarious piece of satire critiquing church corruption, medieval superstition, and Christ-less religious expression. In this jab at late medieval Catholicism, Erasmus denounces meaningless ritual that doesn’t produce a real change of heart: “How many are there that burn candles to the Virgin Mother, and that too at noonday when there’s no need of them! But how few are there that study to imitate her in pureness of life, humility and love of heavenly things, which is the true worship and most acceptable to heaven!”
In his works, he called for a return to a simple apostolic Christianity. He called it the Philosophia Christi (or Philosophy of Christ). While perhaps idealistic, he believed that all Christians would do better by focusing their affections on Christ and living his teachings rather than worrying about the theological and ecclesiastical complexities of medieval religion.
Textual criticism can make the world a better place.
His greatest gift the church, however, was not satire, but scholarship. Erasmus spent years of his life studying the earliest manuscripts of the Greek New Testament he could find. In 1516, he published a critical edition of the Greek New Testament along with his own new Latin translation of the New Testament.
For over a thousand years, most Western Christians had very little access to the Bible at all. Their Bible was a Latin translation called the Vulgate. Many ignorantly assumed that the Vulgate was identical to the words of the Apostles. Erasmus’ scholarship showed a better approach to the text of the scripture. He gave them the Bible in its original language. His Latin translation was an attempt to render the Greek of the earliest manuscripts into the best Latin possible. The goal was for all people to better understand the Bible. While Erasmus’ Greek New Testament is far inferior to the critical texts we have today, it was a huge step in the direction of greater Biblical knowledge.
The Bible for the People
The Protestant Reformers are often praised, and rightfully so, for bringing the Bible to the people. Luther translated the Bible into German, Tyndale into English, Calvin had a cousin translate the Scriptures into French. In doing so these men acted on their dual conviction that the Word of God was to be known accurately and also understood by the people. In doing so, they all used Erasmus’ Greek New Testament. Not only did they rely on his scholarship, they were following the instructions he wrote in his preface to the Bible. He declared:
“Christ wished his mysteries to be published as openly as possible. I wish that even the weakest woman should read the Gospel–should read the epistles of Paul. And I wish that these were translated into all languages, so that they might be read and understood, not only by Scots and Irishmen, but also by Turks and Saracens.”
It’s no coincidence that Erasmus’ New Testament was published the year before Luther nailed his 95 Theses. One of Luther’s central contentions in the Theses is that the Catholic system of penance is based on the Vulgate’s poor translation of “do penance” rather than “repent.” Before Luther, there was Erasmus.
Legacy and Prayer
Erasmus was not a perfect man. Certainly those of us who cherish the Reformation would like to have seen him embrace it. Regardless, it is clear from our historical distance that the Reformation would not have happened without Erasmus. His call for true piety rather than outward ritual never grows old. His efforts to expose scholars to the original Greek were combined with measures to bring the common people a Bible they could understand. This commitment is needed as much today as it was in the sixteenth century.
Father, thinking about the time of the Reformation reminds us how easy it can be for us to forget the gospel. We forget when we allow tradition, culture, or personal preference to guide us more than the Scripture. Keep us grounded in your Word. Thank you for the work of Erasmus and other Biblical scholars who have painstakingly brought the Word to us. May we likewise, bring your Word to our children, our country, and all nations.
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4 thoughts on “Devotions in Church History: Erasmus”
Thank you, David! Your article has helped to see Erasmus more fully understood and fleshed out. A human being who in his own way called for reform before there was a Reformation.
I did a paper on Praise of Folly in college. Great book.
It is! I had to read a good deal of him in grad school. He quickly became one of my favorite authors. He is just so funny.
Bravo! My favorite historical Christian, of those not mentioned in the Bible. Even then he may only lose out to Job. (Not counting the obvious choice of Jesus.)