Erasmus

By Thornton, Robert M. | Modern Age, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Erasmus


Thornton, Robert M., Modern Age


THERE ARE GREAT FIGURES in history we delight in reading about but might not enjoy as houseguests. One exception about whom Henrik Van Loon wrote about so charmingly in his Lives, is Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536). Of all the outstanding personalities in Reformation history, he is by far the most appealing. This Dutch priest and scholar, unlike his contemporaries, carried his religion lightly but nonetheless seriously. He "was the cultivated man with a wide range of interests," but he was also the Christian man ready to "sacrifice the rounding out of his personality in order to meet the needs of his fellows." For his fellow scholars, Erasmus was "the exponent of the fusion of the Christian man and the cultivated man, the foe of the barbarians, of the logic choppers, of the stolid legalists. He was the prophet of simplicity, urbanity, and piety."

Erasmus is, of course, not so well known as the other great figures of the Reformation. But even before Martin Luther appeared on the scene in the early sixteenth century, Erasmus had for some years been speaking out about the shortcomings of the church and the decline in true Christian living among both lay folk and clergy. However, when both sides in the Reformation vainly sought his favor and open support, he refused to come out unequivocally for either party. Consequently, he was denounced as a heretic or as a coward. After his death in 1536, when strong feelings had subsided, he once again was embraced by Protestants and Roman Catholics alike. But Erasmus is not the kind of man who may be claimed as the exclusive property of any organization. "I tried to find out," wrote one of his contemporaries, "whether Erasmus of Rotterdam was adherent of the party, but a certain merchant said to me: 'Erasmus stands alone.'" Newton B. Baker, in his Introduction to The Letters and Journals of Brand Whitlock, wrote that Erasmus, witty, charming, cultured to his fingertips, "never could quite make up his mind in the controversy between Luther and Rome and would have been disposed to quote Shakespeare's phrase, if it had been written in time, 'a plague on both your houses.'" Apparently, Erasmus was so made that he preferred to "fight with both extremes rather than espouse either."

Erasmus's dream was a return to the early Christianity of practice, not of opinion, where the church would no longer insist on particular forms of belief and hence men would cease to hate and slaughter each other because they differed on points of theology. To Erasmus, religion meant purity and justice and mercy, with the keeping of moral commandments, and to him these Graces were not the privilege of any particular creed.

Erasmus helped to produce a new birth in the life of Europe for he had a kindling power which set alight persons who were to become saints and transmitters of new life. Although he himself was neither mystic nor saint, his greatest influence was on the lives and writings of that remarkable group of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century men called Spiritual Reformers, who scorned the emphasis on ritual and dogma to the exclusion of true religion. As one of them, Hans Denck, wrote, "There is no salvation to be found, which does not involve a change in heart, a new attitude of will, an awakened and purified inner self."

This statement echoes Erasmus's insistence that in the Christian experience something had to happen to a man's heart and mind. Another member of this group, Sebastian Franck, declared that "the true Church is not a separate mass of people, not a particular sect to be pointed out with the finger, not confirmed to one time or one place. It is rather a spiritual and invisible body of all members of Christ, born of God, of one mind, spirit, and faith, but not gathered [i.e., organized] in any one external city. It is a Fellowship, which only a spiritual eye would see. It is the assembly and communion of all truly God-fearing, good-hearted, newborn persons in the world, both together by the Holy Spirit in the peace of God and the bonds of love. …

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