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


Desiderius Erasmus played an important part in the history of the Reformation of the sixteenth century, particularly the Lutheran Reformation. This was not because Erasmus was himself a reformer who cooperated with the reformers in the important work God had given them to do. He was a Humanist, basically an enemy of the gospel. He was a member of the Roman Catholic Church, born and raised within it, a member of it all his life, and one who was in full agreement with its doctrine.

It is true that Erasmus had a great deal of criticism of the church of which he was a member, and he could give words to his criticism in ways which brought shame to guilty clergy and laughter to the common people. But, though his criticism was sharp and biting, it was never aimed at the church’s doctrines. Though he was a critic of the church, he was a loyal member of it and refused to part ways with it. He came to hate the Reformation and everything for which it stood. Yet, God used him in a remarkable way. He served to bring the Lutheran Reformation to a critical crossroads and he forced Luther himself to make his choice between the differing roads, a choice which would determine the character of the Reformation on the most crucial article of the Christian faith: Is salvation the work of sovereign and efficacious grace? Or does it depend in part on man’s free will?

Luther chose the former road, and the Reformation was, by God’s grace, a genuine return to the Word of God.

It is my desire to convey to our readers something of the drama of this too-often-forgotten event in the Reformation.

The Influence of Erasmus in Europe

In my first article I spoke of the high reputation in which Erasmus was held throughout most of Europe. He was, beyond doubt, the most highly educated man in Europe; he was Europe’s greatest scholar, bar none; his gifts for writing in elegant and effective Latin surpassed the gifts of any other man who took pen to paper. He was the counselor and advisor of Europe’s mighty in church and state. The professors and teachers in the universities listened to his words and read his works with awe. He was urbane, witty, serious, forceful, erudite—in short, a true Renaissance man. He was showered with honors and money until he became wealthy. Let me quote Schaff.

The humanists were loudest in his praise, and almost worshiped him. Eoban Hesse, the prince of Latin poets of the time, called him a “divine being,” and made a pilgrimage on foot from Erfurt to Holland to see him face to face…. Zwingli visited him in Basel, and before going to sleep used to read some pages of his writing. To receive a letter from him was a good fortune, and to have a personal interview with him was an event.

We might mention here a couple of his more popular books. Perhaps the best known is The Praise of Folly, in which he took dead aim at the terrible evils in monasticism, ruthlessly exposed these evils, and criticized the institution for fostering them. He was particularly opposed to the follies of monks and friars and mocked them with biting sarcasm. With this book he made the world laugh.

A more sober and constructive book was his Handbook of a Christian Soldier, in which he laid out the pattern for the life of one who wanted to live faithful to Christ.

Erasmus edited and published many of the church fathers, but, tellingly, did not like Augustine. Augustine was too sharp a defender of God’s sovereign and free grace.

Perhaps his greatest accomplishment was the first publication of a critical edition of the Greek New Testament. He gave scholars the New Testament in its original language, instead of the Vulgate, a Latin translation by Jerome. He hurried to get this published because he wanted to get his edition on the market before the Spanish cardinal Ximenes, who was also known to be working on such an edition. God uses the work of wicked men for His purpose as well as the labors of the faithful. With the Greek New Testament in their hands, the Reformers could work with the original and prepare accurate translations for God’s people. They could work with the original languages in their preaching, teaching, and writing. It was a great gift to the church. It came one year before Luther’s reformatory work began: 1516.

In all his writings, he opposed formalism, traditionalism, and the moral evils of the church, which in his judgment obscured the teaching of Christ.

We ought to be aware of the tremendous influence Erasmus had on Europe, because it plays a major role in the drama that unfolded.

Erasmus’ Early Sympathy for the Reformation and Later Hesitation

Erasmus wanted reformation in the church. There can be no question about that. He was dismayed at the many evils prevalent in the church.

When Erasmus saw that Luther was bent on bringing reformation to the church, Erasmus was delighted. His correspondence with Luther began early, and he was very sympathetic with Luther’s aims. On his part, Luther wanted Erasmus to join with him in his quest for reformation in the church. At least in the early days of Luther’s work, Luther was prepared to do almost anything to persuade Erasmus to join him.

It would, of course, have meant a great deal if Erasmus had taken a stand with Luther. Erasmus, with his enormous prestige, could have brought many of Europe’s universities and scholars to the side of the Reformation, and he could have made the Reformation a credible and powerful force in the social, political, and ecclesiastical life of Europe. The pressure on the church to reform itself would have been far, far greater than any pressure exerted by an obscure monk in the dirty little town of Wittenberg. Paris, Cologne, London, Cambridge, Rotterdam—who knows what great forces would be unleashed to bring reformation to Europe, if only Erasmus would join the movement. One can see today’s insipid ecclesiastics piously talking about all the good they are able to do when selling their birthright for a mess of ecumenical pottage.

Yet, it did not happen. When Luther expressed admiration for Erasmus’ work and urged Erasmus to join the Reformation, Erasmus equivocated and finally demurred. He decided not to go that way. He was sympathetic to Luther’s work, but only to a point. When Frederick the Wise asked Erasmus for his opinion of Luther, Erasmus acted as if he hadn’t heard the question. But when Frederick pressed him, he paused thoughtfully and could finally come up with nothing better than, “Luther has committed two sins—he has touched the pope on the crown and the monks on the belly.”

There were reasons for this reluctance on the part of Erasmus.

Erasmus saw the need for reformation, but he insisted that it had to take place within the church, not by separation from it. He was like so many today who remain within a corrupt and apostate church, always hoping for change, and, meanwhile, becoming weakened by the downward slide of the church they hope to save.

Erasmus basically took an entirely different view of reform than Luther. Erasmus was in full agreement with the church’s doctrine; he wanted reformation of morals only.Granted that moral reformation was necessary, such reformation had been attempted for over 200 years by others, more concerned even than Erasmus, and all without success. Moral decay arises out of doctrinal error, and moral reformation is born from doctrinal renewal. It does not work to try to bring about reformation in a church by calling attention to errors of the church in practical matters of life without insisting on a return to the truth of Scripture.

But Erasmus was totally offended by Luther’s sharp, angry, condemnatory language and his insistence on telling things as they were. Anyone who has read even a smattering of Luther knows the Luther of violent language and sharp invective. Erasmus was the scholar. Witty, polished, polite, learned—he had no time for Luther’s crudities. He thought them irresponsible, uncultured, unscholarly, unkind. Someone once asked Erasmus whether he had not laid the egg that Luther hatched. His reply was that perhaps this was true, but he had expected a different kind of a bird.

I am on Luther’s side on this question. It not only took such language as Luther spoke to shake the citadel of Rome to its foundation, but it was, though brutal and forthright, honest in every respect. Luther described things as they were. This wakes up sleepy and sleeping people of God and demonstrates the seriousness of church struggles. It takes the controversy out of the ivory tower of scholarly research and dignified disagreement and puts the struggle on the battlefield where, in fact, it belongs. The church does not need learned scholars (although Luther was such) and nice people who discuss with mutual respect for each other various differing viewpoints in quiet and hushed voices—such are to the detriment of the church and the truth of God, for they deal with God’s truth itself as if it is nothing but an interesting theological question. The church, in times of apostasy, needs trumpet blasts, sharp unambiguous language, men willing to “say it as it is,” fearless men who love God and His Word above all else.

This was the trouble with Erasmus. To stand with Luther would have ended his high standing in Europe’s scholarly circles, in king’s courts, in papal palaces. He could not bear the thought of this. It was, at last, a matter of pride, of wanting to be recognized, of coveting the respect of one’s peers, of fear of the condemnation of others and of suffering for Christ’s sake. Erasmus recognized this latter: he bluntly said that he was not made of the stuff of martyrs. But it takes those willing to suffer for Christ’s sake and to stand alone bearing the reproach of Christ to do the work of God.

The nature of the Reformation made it necessary for Europe to choose one side or the other. Erasmus was caught in this, but did not want to take sides on issues not defined by him or in controversies not controlled by him. This is Schaff’s evaluation. This is true.

Erasmus’ pride! That was finally the thing. And strangely enough, that pride became a matter of theology. I think Luther knew it. He forced Erasmus to spell out his position on one of the most important theological questions of the Reformation: the question of the free will of man. That, finally, brought the break.

Luther wrote Oecolampadius, the Reformer of Basel:

[Erasmus] has done what he was ordained to do: he has introduced the ancient languages … (A reference to Erasmus’ critical edition of the Greek NT). He will probably die like Moses in the land of Moab…. To reveal the good and to lead into the land of promise, is not his business.

The Great Issue

It seems to me that Luther himself forced the issue. He was suspicious of Erasmus from the beginning. As early as 1516, prior to the beginning of the Reformation proper, Luther expressed his fear that Erasmus understood far too little of the grace of God. Luther was concerned that Erasmus was interested more in a demonstration of Romish error than biblical truth, and, as a consequence, had a greater love for peace than for the cross.

With Erasmus’ equivocation, Luther grew more impatient. Under prodding from Luther and others, Erasmus made up his mind, broke openly with Luther, and declared all out war against the Reformation. But the issue, strikingly and providentially, was the issue of grace. Erasmus made his public announcement of war against Luther in a book in which he attacked the doctrine of total depravity. The book was The Freedom of the Will. In it Erasmus spelled out in detail his views: Total depravity destroyed moral responsibility. To teach such a doctrine made useless the commandments of God, repentance from sin, and reward in heaven. It was a fiery attack against Augustine and against what Erasmus knew was the heart and soul of Luther’s position. Man, said Erasmus, has a free will. That enables him to choose for or against God. That makes him morally responsible for his deeds, enables him to repent of his sins, and earns for him a reward for his merit.

It is not surprising that Erasmus took this position, if one thinks about it.

He was, first of all, deeply committed to pagan thought and was sure that pagan philosophers spoke truth. How did they do this if they were unregenerated? The possibility lay in their ability to do good, find truth, express it eloquently, and teach it to others. Such possibility of good for these pagans was the grace of God towards them. That grace resulted in something less than total depravity. Luther would make Erasmus give up his darling pagans, a price far too high to pay.

Erasmus was also a proud man. He showed that when he allowed Europe to worship him. He clung to his pride when to go with Luther would mean the loss of the respect of the whole world of scholarship. To join the Reformation would be to take up a cross. Erasmus did not want a cross, he wanted an earthly crown. But his pride led him to exalt his own spiritual powers. Every effort on the part of man to salvage some tattered remains of his own goodness so that he may make his own contribution to salvation and earn merit with God is pride. Pride led Erasmus away from the dark horror of Calvary to bask in the sunshine of the favor and praise of Europe’s scholars.

But, finally, Erasmus was from the start, and would always remain, a son of the church. Rome had, centuries earlier, and in the interest of maintaining that precious doctrine of human merit, condemned Augustinianism, killed Gotteschalk, its leading defender, and committed itself to the hellish error of Semi-Pelagianism. Erasmus was content with, and, indeed, believed this gross God-denying heresy. 

I am thankful that the issue, under God’s providential direction, was this very one of man’s free will. There is no defender of free will today (and these defenders number in the millions) who can maintain his haughty and man-exalting doctrine and claim to be a son or daughter of the Reformation—whether in Calvinistic circles or in the Lutheran tradition.

And, when all is said and done, this is always the issue in the church of Christ. Is salvation from God alone? Is salvation, therefore, without human aid, assistance, or cooperation? Is it by sovereign and particular grace? Or does the Almighty God wait on puny man and remain dependent on Him to save? God or man? Erasmus was for man. Luther stood for God.

Luther waited a year before he answered. This was not because there was any doubt in Luther’s own mind. The issues were defined, and Luther had assumed his position much earlier when he found peace with God in the doctrine of justification by faith alone. The issues, however, were so crucial that Luther prepared his answer with care.

Think of the matter from Luther’s side. It was, apparently, only a minor point of doctrine. Conceding depravity, Erasmus wanted a bit of good in man. Conceding justification by faith, Erasmus demurred at the word “alone.” If Luther had been willing to make that minor concession, Europe would have fallen at his feet. The doors of the universities would have swung open. The numbers following him would have multiplied by the millions. He could have laid aside the cross of persecution and taken on a cardinal’s hat. He could have been a force in the church for the moral reform so desperately needed. The bull of excommunication would never have been written. The lonely stand at Worms would never have been necessary. Isolation in the castle at Wartburg to save his life would have been folly. The pope himself would have placed a crown on his head.

But there was this matter of the glory of God and the truth of His Word. From that, Luther would not and could not budge. And so he wrote his Bondage of the Will, that magnificent and powerful defense of all the doctrines of grace, as strong as or stronger than anything Augustine wrote or Calvin would later write. It was a bold and challenging defense of God’s honor and salvation by grace alone. It is the one book which Luther himself said was the most important book he had written. It remains the one book that anyone who loves the Reformation must read.

It gave direction, right direction, to the entire Reformation. The consequences were the alienation of most of Europe’s intelligentsia. It meant for Luther a denying of himself and a taking up of the cross of Christ. But through it, Luther was Christ’s disciple, and by it he pointed the way, for all those who followed him, of true faithfulness to our Lord.

Erasmus was finally forsaken by friend and foe. That happens sometimes to men who try to sit on the fence. It happened to him. The criticism came from all sides: Pelagians faulted him for his equivocation and sympathy for reform; and the faithful, for whom the gospel of sovereign grace had been opened, despised him for his willingness to sell his soul for a mess of human praise.

It was the parting of the ways between Humanism and Godliness, between the Renaissance and the Reformation, between common and general grace and sovereign and particular grace. It remains the parting of the ways today.