11 November 2006

The man who laid the egg Luther hatched

ERASMUS of Rotterdam spent most of his early life studying in the schools of the Brethren of the Common Life, a lay community founded by Gerhard Groote. He was ordained a priest at age twenty-five and took religious vows in the monastery of Steyn, a part of the Windesheim group (of which Thomas a Kempis, supposed author of the incomparable Imitation of Christ, was a member). After a dispensation (later made permanent by Pope Leo X), he left monasticism for a life of study and writing. He found his greatest pleasure in his visits to England and converse with the likes of St. Thomas More (who dedicated Utopia to him), John Colet, and Bishop Fisher. Through the influence of these English scholars and ecclesiastics, Erasmus was encouraged in his devotion to Christian humanism, which stood apart from the humanism flourishing in Italy. This movement attempted to reform the Catholic faith by a return to the sources (ad fontes)—a re-examination of the original language of Scripture, coupled with the study of patristics. Instead of relying on the Latin of Jerome, Erasmus studied Greek, correcting translational errors in the Vulgate. His translations of the New Testament were the basis for the Geneva Bible and King James version. Erasmus held up Christian antiquity as the model of faith, a time when faith, in his thinking, was simpler, purer, free of the pious accretions of his time: obscure devotions, the cult of saints, the superstitious attachment to relics—in short, “non-essentials.”

Erasmus’ Christian humanism had a profound impact on the Western world, far more profound than he knew. When Luther exploded onto the scene, he carried a version of Erasmus’ New Testament, which he translated into German, and was filled with admiration for the Christian reformer. Their early correspondence was genial, but increasingly became more disagreeable as the emotionally violent Luther accused him of cowardice, while Erasmus gently mocked Luther’s novel teachings. As the Protestant Reformation gained momentum, many Catholics laid the blame at Erasmus’ feet, calling him “the man who laid the egg Luther hatched.” And who could blame them? Many thought, after all, that Luther was simply carrying out to its logical conclusion the program begun by Erasmus.

But where Erasmus sought reform of the Church from within, Luther rejected the system altogether. For instance, Erasmus defended the doctrine of transubstantiation, while Luther redefined it in favor of consubstantiation (in fact, he went on to reject five of the seven sacraments). Where Erasmus continued to acknowledge the supremacy of the Roman Pontiff, Luther rejected him as of the devil (other choice words were used to describe him as well). Erasmus detested the violence and anti-humanism of the Protestant movement, and by 1535, the break between Luther and Erasmus was complete. By then, the Reformation was an unstoppable force, and it would take the cold logic of Jean Cauvin in his Institutes to bring to full fruition what Erasmus unwittingly brought on so many years before.