E is for Erasmus
Desiderius Erasmus lived from 1466 to 1536, a life that spanned from the renaissance to the reformation. He had enormous influence on culture, theology, and literature, but not all of that was positive. At times Erasmus made great contributions to the church and culture, but at other times his influence was counterproductive at best, dangerous or heretical at its worst.
Born at Rotterdam, Holland, Erasmus was a Dutch humanist, scholar, and theologian. While we may challenge may disagree somewhat with his views as a scholar or theologian, he can be respected in both of those arenas. It is his role as a humanist that is most problematic. Humanism, whether secular or religious, places an undue emphasis on mankind as the center of everything. In true Christian theology, God is glorified as the center of all things and God is the point of history. In any school of humanism, however, that is not so. Man, rather than God, is truly the object of worship. “Christian humanism emphasizes the humanity of Jesus, his social teachings and his propensity to synthesize human spirituality and materialism. It regards humanist principles universal human dignity and individual freedom and the primacy of human happiness as essential and principal components of, or at least compatible with, the teachings of Jesus. Christian humanism can be perceived as a philosophical union of Christian ethics and humanist principles.” (D’Arcy, Martin C. Humanism and Christianity. New York: The World Publishing Company, 1969) The overall emphasis on people as the pinnacle of this world leads to some serious theological problems.
Erasmus had a significant role in developing philology. Language development and the rediscovery of ancient languages was instrumental in the changes that were afoot. One of the key phrases of the renaissance and the reformation is “ad fontis”. This is a Latin phrase that means “back to the sources.” The reasoning went like this: the source of theology is the Bible. The source of the Bible is Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. Therefore, ad fontis in a Christian sense pushed scholarship back to the original languages of the Bible. Here enters Erasmus who used the phrase in his De ratione studii ac legendi interpretandique auctores: “Sed in primis ad fontes ipsos properandum, id est graecos et antiquos.” (Translation: Above all, one must hasten to the sources themselves, that is, to the Greeks and ancients.) This is the area of study in which Erasmus is most well-known. At the encouragement of printer John Froben of Basle, Erasmus embarked on a project to produce and publish the first Greek New Testament in the West in over a 1000 years and the first to be marketed. Martin Luther used the second edition of this work for the translation of the Bible into the German language. William Tyndale used the third edition for the first translation of the Bible into English. To quickly let a complicated history be summarized, we should note that successive editions would eventually form the basis of the Textus Receptus. This would be the basis for the New Testament in the King James Version of 1611. Erasmian Greek text presents several major problems. First, he had a few manuscripts that included most of the book of Revelation, but none of them included the last six verses. The solution Erasmus chose was to translate the passage from the Latin back to the Greek and pass that off as the original wording. This was an illegitimate and unethical manner of textual emendation. Also, there also are many typographical errors. Further, we have a text assembled from a few very late manuscripts of the Byzantine textual family. The later a manuscript is dated, the more suspect it is of error, much like the telephone game. Very few embrace only a majority text-form of the Byzantine type. Textual criticism today would favor a variety of readings in comparison including manuscripts from different text families and different time periods. The maxim of textual critics is “manuscripts ought to be weighed rather than counted.” The manuscripts that Erasmus used would be seen as less valuable than older manuscripts available today. Admittedly, some good came from this and the bad was actually not all Erasmus’ fault. His Greek text was based on limited, inferior manuscripts. This established a fairly corrupt text which infected Luther’s German, Tyndale’s English, as well as the Bishops Bible, the Geneva Bible, and the King James that has influenced millions of Christians. In thinking through the inerrancy of the Scriptures, this is a serious charge. Erasmus’ errors have produced a tainted text that has been passed down for many centuries. There is a valuable positive side of this. First, Erasmus produced the first Greek text in over 1000 years, the first ever published and marked text – a significant contribution. For the first time, people had access to the Bible in Greek. Also, Erasmus’ intention was to produce a critical text, the first critical text. Though based upon limited inferior manuscripts, it was still a critical text using what was available. This methodology would later be followed by men such as Brooke Foss Westcott and Fenton John Anthony Hort in the 1800’s. It has been followed by such modern Greek texts such as the Nestle Aland and the UBS. The methodology started by Erasmus formed the basis for the modern efforts which have informed many and made marked contributions to the world of Bible translation.
Erasmus was a theologian who changed the world.
We now turn to his theology. He made major contributions, but many of those contributions were errant. He stood strongly upon the libertarian understanding of free will, in opposition to the reformers teaching such as Luther’s The Bondage of the Will. His humanism converges with his theology, informed by his Catholic indoctrination, and bristles at the thought of God’s sovereignty. He penned his definitive statement on free will in De libero arbitrio diatribe sive collatio. His influence can be felt throughout much theology that opposed the doctrines of the Reformation. It furthered the Catholic belief in synergy which has infiltrated many protestant churches.
Erasmus held to a third view on the Reformation. He felt that Martin Luther went too far in his protests, but also that he Catholic church ought to be more tolerant of divergent views. Thus, he held to a role of tolerance between the movements. On one hand, it provides a platform for meaningful dialogue rather than hostile reactions. On the other hand, tolerance often results in compromise. While we believe that Roman Catholicism was something to flee from rather than embrace, perhaps Luther did not go far enough; Erasmus wanted him to give up ground, but such was a natural accommodation from a Catholic priest.
Erasmus’ greatest advancement is in the fields of philology and early textual criticism. We have benefited much from his brilliance in this area. The greatest negative is his contributions to the Calvinist-Arminianist debate. His thinking on humanism would advance through the centuries to the point of modern secular humanism to include atheism, evolution, and biases toward all religion. While we certainly do not condone all of his work, we cannot deny the significant role that Erasmus has played in western history and thought.