Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Erasmus of Rotterdam by Roland H. Bainton

Erasmus at the end of his life felt that his lamps had been blown out by the Lutheran gust. Not that Luther was altogether to blame. The incredible ineptitude of the papacy bore a heavier responsibility. Nor was Luther to be held responsible for the excesses of his followers. On that score Erasmus was open to even greater reproach, for the Sacramentarians and iconoclasts claimed to be implementing his ideas.

But blame apart, there was no gain-saying the debacle of the Erasmian program. His followers on both sides of the confessional struggle were being sent by the Catholics to the stake and by the Protestants to the block. His spirit was extinguished and his hopes belied. The universities were being emptied and the studies by which he hoped to refashion the mind of Europe were falling into desuetude. He could do no more that hope that God in His providence would cause the wrath of men to praise Him and that Christ, as Master of the play, would give the tragedy a happy ending. His mood was that of Elijah: "It is enough. Now, O Lord, take away my life...the people of Israel have forsaken Thy covenant, thrown down Thy alters, slain Thy prophets with the sword."

The Lord might have answered Erasmus, as He did Elijah, that there were yet in Israel seven thousand who had not bowed the knee to Baal....the situation varied country by country and century by century. In some lands by the time of his death he was already in eclipse, in others at the very peak of his influence. In Spain by 1533 his vogue was spent. As the century advanced all traces of Catholic liberalism were extinguished. In Italy the great turning point was the year 1542 which saw the establishment of the Roman inquisition. Among the Italians the vogue of Erasmus was perpetuated only by exiles, such as the Socinians, and such champions of religious liberty as Curio, Mino Celso and Acontio. Poland, well into the sixties, was the land of refuge for those cast out by Catholics and Protestants. Hungary, too, for a time was hospitable. France was divided. The Sorbonne had long since been hostile.

In Germany Melanchthon, in accord with the spirit of Erasmus, established a pattern of humanist education which prevailed in revived universities and continued to dominate until, late in the 19th century, the natural sciences encroached upon the humanities and the vernaculars displaced Latin. In the age of Enlightenment Voltaire loved the satire of Erasmus. Herder, Goethe and Lessing found the sprit of Erasmus congenial.

England was the land where the influence of Erasmus was paramount at his death. The entire English Reformation has been characterized as Erasmian, and with justice, if it be remembered that the vogue of his ideas is not necessarily to be attributed solely to his personal impact, since other men of influence in England were of like mind. The Elizabethan settlement breathed the spirit of the Erasmian attempt to achieve comprehension through minimal doctrinal demands. During this period the devotional meditations of Erasmus were not neglected... A survey of the English translations of his works during the succeeding centuries discloses that the 17th preferred the educational works- the Colloquies were used as a school book- the 18th the satirical, notably the Praise of Folly, the 19th the pacifist treatises.

The Low Countries were presumably the area where Erasmus had the most unbroken influence. The reason may be that the temper of the land had long since been formed by that tradition in which Erasmus himself stood, the piety of the Devotio Moderna.

The twentieth century, particularly in its third decade, saw a brief resurgance of interest in Erasmus. Two causes may be assigned. The first was the ecumenical movement. After four hundred and fifty years Catholics and Protestants resumed the dialogue which was possible in the early years of Luther's revolt and which Erasmus endeavored to keep open. The second reason is that the 20th century was- like the Age of Reformation- an age of revolution. Once again the liberals, who desire to bring about social change without violence, were caught between the upper and the nether millstone, and were not ground to flour but to dust! Is drastic reform possible without violence?


  1. Against the Pseudoevangelicals of Strasbourg by Erasmus (@1533)

    Where is your dovelike spirit? Did the apostles spread the gospel after your fashion? You cry out against the luxury of the priests, the ambitions of the bishops, the tyranny of the Roman pontiff, the loquacity of the sophists, against prayers, fast and masses. But your object is not so much to reform as destroy. You would root out the wheat with the tares. Look at these Evangelicals. Are they any less addicted to luxury, license and lucre? The gospel is supposed to make the drunken sober, the cruel kind. But I can point to some whom it has made worse than they were before. Images are thrown out of churches, but what good is that if the idols of vice remain? The solemn prayers of the litury are ended and some now do not pray at all. The Mass is abolished. I would not abolish the Mass even if it has degenerated into a sordid sacrifice. What better has taken its place?

    I have not been in these evangelical churches to see for myself, but I have seen people coming out with a fierce mien. Who ever saw anyone in their churches beating his breast and weeping? Instead they lacerate the priests in a way conducive to sedition rather than piety. The cowl is gone. Would that vice had gone with it. And as for freedom, there are those that would rather go into exile than live under your liberty.

    How far do you think you have progressed in reforming the Church of Rome? What you have done is harden it. Formerly Catholics could discuss papal power and purgatory. Now one dares scarcely to whisper. Now we are forced to believe that a man of himself can perform works of genuine merit and that the Virgin can prevail on the Son to influence the Father. Formerly no one was molested for a breach of dietary regulations in private. Now death is the penalty for eating an egg in Lent.

    Your principle is unsound that in every respect we can return to the pristine condition of the Church. The primitive state was not altogether ideal. There was drunkeness at the Lord's Supper, debauchery at midnight vigils, and riots attending the election of bishops. In other respects I agree that there has been degeneration, notably in the elaboration of church music and the punishment of heretics, but on the whole I think, if the Apostle Paul were to return, he would lament not so much the state of the Church as the vices of men.

  2. http://oll.libertyfund.org/index.php?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php%3Ftitle=191&Itemid=27#toc_list

    "The Manual of A Christian Knight" by Erasmus, online

  3. "Erasmus of Chistendom" by Roland H. Bainton
    Charles Scribner's Sons, N.Y., 1969

    This biography is an expansion of five lectures delivered on the L.P. Stone Foundation at Princetom Theological Seminary during February, 1967.