The name of Erasmus will never perish
John Colet (1516)
Erasmus has published volumes more full of wisdom than any which Europe has seen for ages.
The chief aim of Erasmus in his life’s work as a humanist scholar was to restore theology. In his times this meant to replace the theology then being taught and practiced as a professional science by a more adequate study of Holy Scripture and the Fathers of the early Church.
Erasmus was a wild bird, willing to be caressed but refusing to sing in a cage.
Those who have dipped into the life and prolific writings of Erasmus (1466-1536) might be aware of the importance and significance of the Praise of Folly. Others know Erasmus well because of his Adages and Colloquies. The voluminous correspondence of Erasmus holds the attention of others. The clash between Luther and Erasmus is part of Reformation lore and legend.
The fact that Erasmus was put on the Index makes him an activist and writer of some interest. The peace theology of Erasmus makes him an anomaly of sorts in the war stricken 16th century. Many 1st generation Anabaptists cut their peace tradition teeth by sitting at the feet of Erasmus in Basel. Erasmus was front and centre in heralding and doing new translations of the Bible. But, Erasmus was deeply committed as a Christian humanist and renaissance scholar in bringing to the fore the Fathers of the Church.
Erasmus stands in a precarious place in his journey. He was, probably, one of the most rigorous critics of the Roman Catholic Church long before Luther and the protestant reformers came on the scene. Many Protestant reformers thought he was one of them, but Erasmus remained deeply committed to the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman Catholic Church was most suspicious of Erasmus-- his writings were censured by the Sorbonne in 1526, the Spanish Inquisitor General held a conference to examine his writings in 1527, he was criticized at the Valladolid conference in 1527, the theology faculty at Paris condemned some of his writings in 1531, in 1552 (after his death) the Louvain and Sorbonne theologians joined camps to condemn Erasmus’ writings as ‘erroneous, scandalous and heretical’. And, finally, many of his books were placed on the Index of prohibited books. There is no doubt that Erasmus was a much maligned and much misunderstood prophet and sage of the 16th century. His name will never perish for the simple reason that his insights and breadth, depth and probing social analysis have a fullness to them lacking in lesser thinkers and activists.
Erasmus was convinced that the Roman Catholic Church would only be fully renewed, reformed and revived by turning again to the Bible as interpreted by the Fathers of the Church. This meant that Erasmus used all his learning and training to resurrect, Phoenix like, the Classical Christian tradition of the Patristic era. Erasmus was convinced that by bringing forth that Patristic tradition the ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic church’ would find its firm and solid footing again. There was purer water in the Fathers for the simple reason that they were closer to the source and fount of the early church. There is something almost but not quite protestant in Erasmus, and it was the subtler and more nuanced mind of Erasmus that often irritated and vexed both the Roman Catholic and Protestant Sanhedrins.
Erasmus was in the vanguard in turning to the Bible as the north star of his theology and ethics. The fact that he dared to suggest that there were errors in Jerome’s Vulgate meant he had to face the ire of the ruling establishment.
The Vulgate was the sacred text and canon of the time. Erasmus’ 1516 translation of parts of the Bible (original Greek text and revised Latin text making clear Jerome’s errors) did not please the theological elite. More translations and paraphrases would follow that further irritated the traditionalists. It was obvious why some suggested that ‘Erasmus laid the egg that Luther hatched’ or, in those heady days, ‘Erasmus lutheranizes and Luther erasmianizes’.
St. Jerome was the Father that held Erasmus the most in his early years. When Erasmus visited Froben Press in Basel in 1514, a new era was about to unfold. It has been said that the working together of Erasmus and Froben Press ‘brought together the greatest scholar and the greatest printer in Transalpine Europe’. Froben Press was originally the child of Johann Amerbach and Johann Froben. Amerbach had died in December 1513, hence Erasmus worked with Froben. Both Froben and Amerbach were committed to publishing, in updated editions, the works of the Western Fathers. They had already put out editions of St. Ambrose in 1492 and St. Augustine in 1506. The intellectual foundation stones were being put solidly in place for the renewal and application of Classical learning and its role in the reform of the church. The meeting of Erasmus with Johann Froben in 1514 yet furthered this enterprise. Luther, Calvin or the Anabaptists were not yet in the reformation drama.
Erasmus worked tirelessly throughout 1514-1516, and by 1516 his nine folio volumes of St. Jerome had been published by Froben Press. This was but a beginning for Erasmus, though. Froben wanted a better edition on St. Augustine than the 1506 edition, and he asked Erasmus to do the deed. Erasmus faced a threefold task in dealing with St. Augustine: he had to separate the genuine and spurious books that were attributed to St. Augustine, he offered different reads and interpretations of St. Augustine and he raised critical concerns about aspects of St. Augustine’s theology at a variety of significant levels. Erasmus did not finish his work on St. Augustine until 1529.
I mentioned above that Erasmus was committed to reviving the Fathers of the Church, and Froben Press was on board with such an agenda. But, for the most part, Froben Press was focused on the Western Fathers. Erasmus felt that this was a lack and failing that needed to be corrected. It was not good theology to claim to be turning to the Fathers for insights and wisdom yet only turn to the Western Fathers. The fall of Constantinople to the Muslim Turks in 1453 meant that many was the Orthodox and Eastern theological refugee that was coming into Europe via Italy and other parts of the West.
Greek language and learning was again challenging the Latin world, and the ‘New Learning’ was thoroughly and generously open to Orthodox thought and theology—Erasmus was more than eager to dip the bucket of his curious mind into such a well—so was Froben Press.
Froben published in 1520 Erasmus’ work on St. Cyprian, and by 1523 his controversial commentary on St. Hilary of Poitiers was published. Erasmus was very much caught in the middle of a nasty theological and ecclesial fray by 1523. Luther had begun to turn on Erasmus with a vengeance, and the Roman Catholic establishment was shredding him from a variety of learned places. It was very much hunting season on Erasmus, and he was being chased from a diversity of directions. The Roman Catholic tradition was one with Erasmus on his commitment to the Bible-Patristic Tradition, but they clashed with him on his read, interpretation and application of such sources. The Reformers claiming to be true to the authority of the Bible opposed both Erasmus’ peace theology and his commitment to the unity of the historic church that was foundational to the Bible. Erasmus was, in many ways, an orphan in an age of ideologues. This did not deter Erasmus from continuing his work, though.
The beginning of Erasmus’ volumes on St. John Chrysostom appeared in 1525. Chrysostom, like Erasmus, knew what it was like in his blood and bones to be chased and hounded by the church, yet be a faithful and loyal critic of such a community. Erasmus and Chrysostom could not be better hiking companions. They knew the price that had to be paid for being a genuine and authentic prophetic, at the highest levels, to both church and society. Erasmus’s work on Irenaeus came out in 1526, and in 1527 Erasmus completed and updated St. Ambrose. Erasmus, like Chrysostom and Ambrose, knew the demands placed on those that took the faith journey with some seriousness. Erasmus completed his five volumes on Chrysostom in 1530, and by 1531 he produced the homilies of St. Gregory of Nazianzen.
There was no doubt that the Eastern Fathers were more than getting their much needed due and attention from the ever active quill of Erasmus. Eastern Orthodoxy was entering the West again, and Erasmus was one of the most important scholars, translators and interpreters in this engaging process.
The most important early theologian of the church was Origen. Origen did his thinking at a period of church life when much was unclear and unsure, and post-Origenist theology often divided on the pros and cons of Origen in shaping and defining Eastern and Western theology. Erasmus had been a thoughtful reader of Origen thoughout much of his life, and in the final year of his human journey (1536), his published works on Origen left the press.
When Basel erupted into a protestant frenzy in 1529, Erasmus fled to Freiburg to get his bearings. He spent most of his waning years in Frieburg—his was not an easy middle way.
There is a growing interest these days in reclaiming the ‘Great Tradition’. The Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Protestants, from a variety of perspectives, are all part of this renewal of the ‘Great Tradition’. Erasmus was very much part of bringing to frontstage the ‘Great Tradition’ in the 16th century, but he did it in a way that did not delight nor please the Roman Catholic or Protestant Sanhedrins. It will be more than interesting to see if those from the Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant tribes who claim to be interested in the ‘Great Tradition’ turn to Erasmus as a guide and mentor.
If they do not make such a turn, we can seriously question how deep and serious their interest is in the ‘Great Tradition’