Desiderius Erasmus and Humanism (1)

Prof. Hanko is professor emeritus of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.

Introduction

It is time to turn from the Medieval Period in the history of doctrine and concentrate on the time of the Reformation. The Medieval Period, with few exceptions, was a barren period theologically, and little can be learned from it when one is pursuing the development of the truth of God’s Word. Heretics abounded, but the answers to heretics were not to be found.

The Reformation is a different sort of period. During the time of the first generation Reformers, God, through them, restored His truth in the church and restored the church itself to what it ought to be to conform to the Scriptures. In the beginning of the Reformation, the work which Luther especially did in leading the church of Christ back to the fountain of all truth in the sacred Scriptures was work which had to, and did, point out the truth over against Roman Catholicism. But once that had been done, the Reformers were forced to deal with heretics of many different stripes, some of whom fought against Reformation doctrine from within the citadel of the Romish Church, and some of whom joined the Reformation movement, but, in the course of time, betrayed it.

One of the more interesting heretics was Desiderius Erasmus, sometimes called the Prince of the Humanists. He was a contemporary of Luther, in fact, sixteen years older than the German Reformer, but he played a major role in the development of Reformation truth.

The Early Life and Education of Erasmus

While a Roman Catholic biographer claims that Erasmus was “a natural son of a priest,” this is misleading and false. In fact, Erasmus was born out of wedlock, the youngest child of a Roman Catholic priest by the name of Gerard and a physician’s daughter named Margaret. How many children these two had is not known. Erasmus was born in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, where his father served as a priest. His birth date was October 27, either 1466 or 1467.

Erasmus was well-cared for by his parents, until their death when Erasmus was yet a young boy. He was robbed of his inheritance by a guardian and was forced into a convent. Yet, in spite of these sad events, he received the best education available in his land. This education was first in the cathedral school in Rotterdam, then in Deventer, with the Brethren of the Common Life. This latter group was a significant and influential group of mystics who emphasized piety and inner religion rather than the cold, outward formalism of the Romish Church. Education among these people left an indelible mark on Erasmus.

He early showed a love for the ancient Latin classics and an amazingly retentive memory. These classics were, of course, the pagan classics of old Roman authors: Cicero, Livy, and the like. The school in Deventer was, though emphasizing inner piety, not averse to such study of pagan authors.

Nor ought it to surprise us that such studies occupied Erasmus. The Renaissance had taken Europe by storm, and the movement had been embraced by the church, presumably in an effort to baptize classical pagan culture with the religion of Rome. The Renaissance was characterized by a return to Greek and Roman classical culture, particularly the literature of these long-gone centuries. Many within the church not only attempted to incorporate the ideas of pagan thought into the theology of the church, but even saw in classical learning the means whereby the church could be cleansed from its corruption and reformed in morals and worship.

Erasmus, taken in by the lofty thoughts of pagan philosophers, poets, litterateurs, and essayists, found himself in the latter camp. Erasmus was a man of the Renaissance.

Erasmus’ Later Life

After completing his studies with the Brethren of the Common Life, Erasmus was ordained to the priesthood. This was about 1490, when he was 25 years old. Although he remained an ordained priest all his life, he never assumed an active part in the work of a priest, nor performed even one priestly function. He never had a parish of his own, and the work of the parish ministry was totally foreign to him. He did, however, receive a papal dispensation to abandon his position as a monk and his oath to remain a member of the monastery. Perhaps the only good thing he gained from his life in a monastery was an intense dislike of monastic life and a bitter hatred for the corruptions he had seen all about him among the monks.

He chose instead to pursue his studies, chiefly in Paris at the famous University of Paris, where he earned his doctorate. By that time Erasmus became so enamored with his studies and with learning for its own sake that he resolved to spend the whole of his life as a free and independent scholar. And this is what he did — the rest of his life till he died in 1536.

His Interests

Erasmus boasted of this fact. He boasted of the fact that he was free from home life, free from attachment to any school, free from family, free from any occupation, free from citizenship in a country, and free from the toils of daily work. He was a scholar, a professional scholar, one who could spend all his time developing his intellect and pursuing his studies in any direction he chose. He could write at leisure and never under the pressures of deadlines. He could write as he pleased and what he pleased and he needed to give account to no one for what he wrote. He once wrote to a friend: “When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.” He was what Paul would probably call a man ever learning and never coming to the knowledge of the truth. He claimed to be and was a man of the world, a true cosmopolitan. No country could claim him. The church could not snare him, not even by offering him a cardinal’s hat. He spoke and wrote in Latin. He never learned another language, either French or German or Italian. In fact, he spoke his native tongue, Dutch, with difficulty and poorly. But his Latin was elegant and stylish, and that was, after all, the language of Europe’s intelligentsia.

This did not mean that Erasmus did not travel. He traveled to Italy, where he spent a few years and published a few works. He lived chiefly in Venice and came to think of it as the most beautiful city in the world. He made two trips to England, during the first of which he met such leading English Humanists as John Colet and Thomas More. During his second visit he occupied the chair of Lady Margaret professor of divinity in Cambridge, one of the more prestigious chairs in England’s universities. He was offered a permanent appointment to this chair, and the whole of England would have been flattered if he had accepted. But he declined in the interests of maintaining his freedom.

Because Switzerland was the one country more than any other which welcomed freedom of thought, he finally settled in Basle, on the German French border. There Erasmus made a lifelong friend in Forbet, who became his printer and publisher, his confidant and friend.

His Errors

Now, there are some things that ought to be said about all this.The life of a scholar may be something which appeals to some people, and, indeed, it appealed to Calvin, who nearly had to be dragged into the work of the Reformation by Farel, the Reformer of Geneva. But Paul is not being complimentary when he speaks of those who are ever learning and never coming to the knowledge of the truth. A man is given his place in the church to work on behalf of the cause of Christ and his own fellow saints. Study is good; but study without work in the maelstrom of the fighting kingdom here on earth is useless.

Erasmus would perhaps agree with what I have said, but he would also refuse to apply such a characterization to himself. He was persuaded that the evils in the Romish Church, and there were many, could be rooted out through genuine scholarly learning, preferably learning rooted in the past. This is not true. It is a sort of Humanist principle that man’s improvement is rooted in education, a theory tried repeatedly in a foolish world that perpetually looks to its schools to solve the moral, ethical, and social problems of life. Erasmus was content to apply his principle to the church, and he was persuaded that a thoroughly educated clergy, with the roots of its learning in Aristotle and Cicero, would automatically bring about morally upright priests and genuine reform in the church. He was dead wrong. It is a Pelagian heresy which leads men to think this.

Freedom to live as one pleases, to write and teach without any constraint, to be independent of any institution or country, may seem to some like an idyllic life; but it is wicked for all that, and is rooted in pride. The simple fact is that, especially in the church, God gives us the communion of the saints for a good purpose. Every one of us needs the others in the household of faith. We may not and cannot be independent. If we insist on our independence we will go astray. The church of which we are a part, our responsibilities in it, our work on its behalf, our labors with others in the church, all act as a check on our natural tendency to dart off in this theological direction or that moral error. Erasmus’ pride was also his intellectual downfall.

But his most serious flaw was his Humanism. In what is probably an oversimplification, Humanism teaches that man is the center of the universe: that he is given the world for his benefit, that he has the means to control it, that it is here for his personal enjoyment, and that his own personal welfare is the only legitimate goal of all his activity.

While I am not so much interested in all this now, this Humanism in the men of the Renaissance gave them a love for classical learning which lifted the writings of mere pagans to the level of God’s own truth. In these pagan writers, so it was said, was to be found right knowledge, high moral standards, truth concerning God and man, a rich mine of learning which could be integrated with the Christian faith to the enrichment of theology. The Roman Catholic Church as a whole accepted this view, and some of the leading patrons of such learning were Rome’s popes.

It is not so surprising that Erasmus, along with his fellow Humanists, should think this; the same view is held today by those who hold to common grace. A grace of God, operative in pagan men and women, enables them to produce works of culture pleasing to God and of use to the church. Such grace, in the arena of thought and ideas, produces truth — no, Truth, with a capital T. Already in my college days we were given instruction on how to bring about “the marriage of Athens and Jerusalem.”

But let it be clear: this is Humanism. And Humanism destroys the church of Christ.

All of this does not mean that Erasmus did not gain fame, honor, and wealth in his lifetime. He was the most famous man in Europe. Every university, with the exception of those that hated his efforts to reform, coveted his position on the faculty. The learned and mighty of Europe counted it an honor if he would deign to answer their correspondence. Kings and princes sought his advice, and even they thought a personal interview with Erasmus was the epitome of honor. Popes and prelates did homage to his learning and wanted his counsel on ecclesiastical affairs. He was recognized as Europe’s most learned man and was so adored that some came perilously close to deifying him.

Although in his earlier years he had to teach and depend on the kindness of wealthy friends for his livelihood, as his fame increased, so did his wealth. The rich and the famous, the powerful and the mighty, showered him with gifts and money, until he was so wealthy that he could, upon his death, leave a sizable estate.

Schaff writes, “He combined native genius, classical and biblical learning, lively imagination, keen wit, and refined taste. He was the most cultivated man of his age, and the admired leader of scholastic Europe from Germany to Italy and Spain, from England to Hungary.”

We have described something of the life of Erasmus. But the one event in his life, which more than any other had its influence on the Reformation, is yet to be discussed. That must wait till next time.