Erasmus of Rotterdam & The Church Fathers

by Ron Dart

Last June I was fortunate to spend time in Freiburg, Germany and Basel, Switzerland, the cities where Erasmus spent the final years of his life. From the 1520s to 1530s, the Roman Catholic and Protestant wars had heated up to such an extent that, when Protestants took control of Basel in 1529, Erasmus had to flee to Freiburg, returning to Basel in 1535 where he died a year later. Erasmus had a special affection for Basel—among other projects, it was here that he published many of his books on the Fathers of the Patristic era. While in Basel, I spent many an hour near Erasmus’s burial site in the cathedral pondering the relevance of Erasmus for today.

While Erasmus is best known as the author of The Praise of Folly and The Complaint of Peace, many of his other works are still widely read—his Adages and Colloquies and collections of his correspondence, especially those letters that document his clash with Luther. He also produced new translations of the Bible. Perhaps less well known today are his annotated editions of the Church Fathers.

Erasmus stood for a Christian humanist vision that was critical of the church as it existed in his lifetime and painfully aware of its urgent need of reform, yet refused to take part in or justify schism. Erasmus turned to both the Bible and Church Fathers in search of a fuller vision of church unity and as a call to peacemaking in the midst of conflict. In the war-ridden 16th century, with Christians slaughtering fellow Christians, Erasmus’s peace writings made him a voice crying in the wilderness.

Erasmus stood at a precarious place in history. Long before Luther and the protestant reformers came on the scene, he was one of the most rigorous critics of the Roman Catholic Church. Sadly, despite his loyalty, the Roman Catholic Church was profoundly 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, the theology faculty at Paris condemned some of his books in 1531, and in 1552, after his death, theologians at Louvain and the Sorbonne condemned Erasmus’s writings as “erroneous, scandalous, and heretical.” Finally, many of his books were placed on the Vatican’s Index of Prohibited Books and remained there until the 20th Century.

Convinced that the Roman Catholic Church would only be fully renewed and reformed by turning again to the Bible as interpreted by the Fathers of the Church, Erasmus used all his learning and training to facilitate a phoenix-like resurrection of the Classical Christian tradition of the Patristic era. Only by returning to the Patristic tradition, Erasmus was convinced, would the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church” find its firm and solid footing again. There was pure water in the Fathers for the simple reason that they were closer to the source and fount of the early church.

In turning to the Bible as the north star of theology and ethics, Erasmus was in the vanguard. Yet the fact that he dared to correct errors in Jerome’s Latin translation, the Vulgate, meant he had to face the ire of Rome. For the Catholic Church, the Vulgate was the scriptural gold-standard. Erasmus’s 1516 translation of parts of the Bible (original Greek text and revised Latin text making clear Jerome’s errors) was seen by Catholic traditionalists as sending a fox into the henhouse. Erasmus was accused of “laying the egg that Luther hatched,” or, as was said in those days, “Erasmus Lutheranizes and Luther Erasmianizes.”

When Erasmus visited Johann Froben in Basel in 1514, a new era was about to unfold. It has been said that the combination of Erasmus and Johann Froben “brought together the greatest scholar and the greatest printer in Transalpine Europe.”

The Froben Press was originally the joint venture of Johann Amerbach and Johann Froben. Both men were deeply committed to publishing updated editions the works of the Western Fathers. Before Amerbach died in 1513, they had put out editions of St. Ambrose in 1492 and St. Augustine in 1506, first fruits in the work of putting solidly in place the intellectual foundation stones for the renewal and application of Classical learning and its role in the reform of the church. The teaming together of Erasmus and Froben greatly furthered this enterprise.

St. Jerome was the Church Father Erasmus concentrated on in his early years of scholarship, and by 1516, Froben had published his nine folio volumes of St. Jerome. But this was only a beginning for Erasmus. (Luther, Calvin, and the Anabaptists were not yet in the reformation drama.) Froben wanted a better edition of St. Augustine than the 1506 edition and asked Erasmus to produce it. Erasmus faced a threefold task in dealing with St. Augustine: he had to separate the genuine from the spurious books that were attributed to St. Augustine, present different perspectives on and interpretations of St. Augustine, and treat critical concerns about aspects of St. Augustine’s theology at a variety of significant levels. Interspersing the task with other projects, Erasmus did not finish his work on St. Augustine until 1529.

While Froben’s special interest was the Church Fathers of the Latin West, Erasmus was convinced that renewed attention to the Church Fathers of the Greek East was equally important. The fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453 meant that many were the Orthodox theological refugees coming into Europe via Italy and other gateways to the West. “I have turned my entire attention to Greek,” he said in a letter to his fried, Jacob Batt. “The first thing I shall do, as soon as the money arrives, is to buy some Greek authors; after that, I shall buy clothes.”

Erasmus immersed himself in the richness and the fullness of the Greek language and the work of the Eastern Fathers, and convinced Johann Froben to collaborate in the project. Greek learning and language (long held in suspicion by many in the West as the language of the schismatic Orthodox) again began to challenge the Latin world and to influence the “New Learning” of the Renaissance.

Professor Ron Dart

Froben published Erasmus’s work on St. Cyprian in 1520 followed by his commentary on St. Hilary of Poitiers in 1523, by which time Erasmus had become a target for both Luther and the Vatican. The Vatican was one with Erasmus on his commitment to the Biblical-Patristic tradition, but clashed with him over his perspectives, interpretations, and applications of the sources. The Reformers, claiming to be true to the authority of the Bible, opposed both Erasmus’s peace theology and his commitment to the unity of the historic church that was foundational to the New Testament and the Fathers of the Patristic Era. Erasmus was, in many ways, an exile in an age of ideologues. Yet this did not deter Erasmus from continuing his work.

The first of Erasmus’ volumes on St. John Chrysostom appeared in 1525. Though divided by many centuries, Erasmus and Chrysostom could not have been better companions. They each knew the price to be paid for speaking with an authentic prophetic voice to both church and society. Erasmus completed his five volumes on Chrysostom in 1530 and the homilies of St. Gregory of Nazianzen by 1531. Erasmus’s work on Irenaeus came out in 1526, and in 1527 Erasmus completed and updated St. Ambrose, a bishop, like Chrysostom, who dared to challenge the ecclesial and political establishments when they became enemies of justice and peace.

Erasmus also was drawn to the writings of Origen. Despite his controversial ideas, with the eventual condemnation of some of them, Origen was the most important theologian and biblical exegete of the early church, writing at a period when much was unclear and unsure. Erasmus had been a thoughtful reader of Origen throughout much of his adult life. In 1536, the final year of his earthly journey, Erasmus’s volume on Origen left the press. Again, Erasmus offered a thoughtful, nuanced, and measured reading of Origen’s contributions to the life of the church.

Thanks to Erasmus, Christians in the West were getting much-needed exposure to the Eastern Fathers—and thus to Eastern Orthodoxy, hitherto almost totally hidden behind the wall created by the Great Schism.  Erasmus sought to articulate a theological position that the Fathers held but had been abandoned in the West.

Erasmus often made the distinction between what is of the essence (esse) of the faith in areas of doctrine and discipline and what are matters of indifference (adiaphora). Erasmus believed that the post-apostolic tradition had at times equated esse with adiaphora, harming areas of doctrine and discipline in the process.

Again and again Erasmus returned to the esse-adiaphora distinction in areas of doctrine and discipline. He argued that in the early Creeds much was intentionally omitted that, centuries later, became central to creedal and confessional texts. Erasmus, like the Church Fathers, was wary of being too sure footed when attempting to clarify the essence or energies of God. The West, Erasmus argued, often tended to go too far when silence was a wiser position to take. By the addition of the filioque clause in the Creed, which Erasmus regarded as a grave error, the West played a significant role in bringing on the Great Schism.

Erasmus steadfastly refused to simplify or domesticate the Church Fathers to serve ecclesial agendas—he walked readers into the unresolved moments of their times. Such an approach annoyed those who sought to present the Fathers as rigidly agreeing on most issues and rarely struggling with the contents of the Creeds.

Relevant once more: Let me conclude with two points connecting Erasmus with our contemporary reality. First, the trauma of 9/11 brought home to North Americans the dangers of certain movements within Islam. However, circumstances were similar for Europeans in Erasmus’ time. In 1529, the Muslim Ottomans were poised to attack Venice. In 1530 Erasmus responded to the threat with a widely circulated essay On the War against the Turks (De Bello Turcico). In it, we can see the probing mind of Erasmus cautioning Europe not to overreact in a hawkish manner to the 16th century’s own version of a “Clash of Civilizations” scenario. Erasmus declared that the Turks had established an immense empire not because of their own merits but due to the sin of Christians. “We have angered God and caused him to send the Turks against us, just as he sent frogs, lice, and locusts upon the Egyptians long ago…. The Turks are men and, what is more important, half-Christian” and therefore deserve to be treated the same as any other people. Much could be drawn from Erasmus’ article to inform contemporary attitudes toward Islam.

Second, we can affirm the important parallel between the 16th century and the growing interest these days in reclaiming “the Great Tradition.” The Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and Protestant traditions, from a variety of perspec-tives, are all part of this renewal of interest. Erasmus was very much part of bringing the Great Tradition to center stage in the 16th century, but he did it in a way that, in the daggers-drawn climate of the time, failed to please either Roman Catholic or Protestant ideologues. Might Christians—Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant—who seek common ground in today’s world find in Erasmus a guide and mentor?

a selection of quotations from Erasmus:

“Wherever you encounter truth, look upon it as Christianity.”

“There is nothing more wicked, more disastrous, more widely destructive, more deeply tenacious, more loathsome [than war]…. Whoever heard of a hundred thousand animals rushing together to butcher each other, as men do everywhere?”

Erasmus excoriated theologians who tried to justify war on the ground that Christ said “Let him who has no sword sell his mantel and buy one.” “As if Christ, who taught nothing but patience and meekness, meant the sword used by bandits and murderers rather than the sword of the Spirit. Our exegete thinks that Christ equipped the apostles with lances, crossbows, slings, and muskets.”

“I would be glad to be a martyr for Christ, but I cannot be a martyr for Luther.”

“It is no great feat to burn a little man. It is a great achievement to persuade him.”

“How can you say Our Father if you plunge steel into the guts of your brother? Christ compared himself to a hen: Christians behave like hawks. Christ was a shepherd of sheep: Christians tear each other like wolves.”

“I see you, while the standard of salvation is in one hand, rushing on with a sword in the other, to the murder of your brother; and, under the banner of the cross, destroying the life of one who owes his salvation to the cross. Even from the Holy Sacrament itself, (for it is sometimes, at the same hour, administered in opposite camps) in which is signified the complete union of all Christians, the warriors, who have just received it, run instantly to arms, and endeavor to plunge the dreadful steel into each other's vitals. Of a scene thus infernal, and fit only for the eyes of accursed spirits, who delight in mischief and misery, the pious warriors would make Christ the spectator.”

Erasmus was disgusted by the incivility and humorlessness of militant Protestants: “I have seen them return from hearing a sermon as if inspired by an evil spirit. Their faces all showed a curious wrath and ferocity.”

In The Complaint of Peace, Peace herself rises to complain about how much her name is praised by one and all yet how few live peaceful lives. “Without me there is no growth, no safety for life, nothing pure or holy, nothing agreeable, while war is a vast ocean of all the evils combined, harmful to everything in the universe.”

“We must look for peace by purging the very sources of war—false ambitions and evil desires. As long as individuals serve their own personal interests, the common good will suffer. Let them examine the self-evident fact that this world of ours is the fatherland of the entire human race.”  IC

This essay is an abridged version of a lecture given by Professor Ron Dart at the 2012 Orthodox Peace Fellowship conference held at the University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford, British Columbia where Ron teaches courses on the interface between political science, philosophy, and religion. The conference was cosponsored by the OPF and the Society of St. Alban and St. Sergius, an organization bringing together Anglicans and Orthodox to discuss their mutual affinities in a spirit of unity (sobornost).


❖  Summer Issue / IC 65 / 2012