Welcome back to Books At a Glance as we continue our brief discussions tracking out the big picture of the Protestant Reformation. I’m Fred Zaspel, and Steve Nichols is back with us talking this time about the connections between the Renaissance and Erasmus to the Reformation.
Steve, let’s begin with the big picture –What was the Renaissance?
The Reformation was a cataclysmic moment in the life of the church so, in many ways, the Renaissance was a cataclysmic moment for Western history. One of the things the Reformation did was to challenge the question of authority. Prior to the Reformation the authority question was sort of settled, the church was the authority. That’s how we knew what was the basis of the true, the good, and the beautiful, as it were. We looked to the church. When the reformers come along and say, that’s a false church and we are the true church and the authority is not the church but the authority is Scripture, the word of God. In some ways that created the crisis of authority. You see it, not only in the reformers who are interested in a theology of the Reformation and practice of the church, but you see it in the Renaissance figures who are interested in a Reformation, as it were, a renewal, as it were, in the arts and the sciences and the life of the church. So we think in terms of the Renaissance, they are also trying to get past some of those medieval layers that had piled themselves up over culture, over the arts, over how to understand even the arts and sciences just as the reformers are trying to get past those layers of tradition.
One of the figures, of course, that is very crucial here, who is very much engaged early on with the reformers in the Renaissance was the figure, Erasmus of Rotterdam. He represents that idea of the Renaissance ideal which fundamentally is ad fonets, which is Latin for “to the source.” We are getting past these layers of tradition that have been built up and we’re getting to the source. And the source for the Renaissance, of course, was the Greco-Roman culture, the Greco-Roman architecture. So you see this in the neoclassical architecture that comes out and you see it in Erasmus with his efforts to produce the Greek text. So, we are fishing in the same pond, as it were, with the Renaissance and the Reformation, but they’re aiming at two different elements of life, and two different elements even of church life, as they develop and as they respond to medieval Roman Catholicism.
You mentioned Erasmus – tell us about him. Who was he?
Erasmus is an interesting man in history, Erasmus of Rotterdam. He also has an association with the UK, was a classic scholar and professor of languages. He would teach Hebrew; he would teach Greek. He also had considerable means so he was able to travel Europe and visit the various monasteries of the earth. And through those travels he was able to collate and pull together various Greek manuscripts and copies of the Greek text. He pulled all of those together and he ended up being at Basel, which had a very good printer, and he begins work on what is going to be one of his two most significant books. And this is a book that’s going to publish on the one column a Latin text of each Scripture and on the other, the Greek text of the New Testament. This is going to require a lot of skill on behalf of the printer to be able to line this up, to cut the type and to line this up and to publish this. This is quite an endeavor, not just to get the manuscripts, but to publish the text. So in 1516 this text which has, really, for the first time a compilation of the Greek text published in a book through the efforts of Erasmus. The other great work that he writes is his satire, In Praise of Folly. And in that satire, he aims squarely at the later medieval Roman Catholic church. And in that book, he calls the church up short and has a lot of fun in the process as it’s quite a satirical work. So that’s Erasmus, and that’s his contribution.
What did Erasmus believe on the critical questions of the church and salvation?
Here’s where we get interesting. Luther sums up Erasmus pretty well and he says that Erasmus was very good at attacking the church, but that he really did not have a theological alternative to take the church to. And that fundamentally differentiates Luther from Erasmus. Now we see it come to an acute point on the issue of the will. Some things Luther had written about the will did not strike a chord with Erasmus, so he started arguing for the freedom of the will. This of course got Luther’s ire; and Luther ends up writing one of his classic texts, The Bondage of the Will, and it is aimed precisely at Erasmus. In that book, Luther is going to say that the bondage of the will is really the centerpiece of the table. So that’s a pretty big deal; we need to pay attention to this. There’s another thing that’s going on in Erasmus that’s kind of interesting. Luther, in The Bondage of the Will, wants to say that we are about convictions and we are about taking a stand and Erasmus was about equivocation and was about not taking a stand. We would use the expression, he’s pretty slippery in an argument. Luther wants to make the point that these issues are such that we cannot equivocate, we must have a position and we must have a conviction and we must stand there. So as you begin to see it, Luther appreciates much of Erasmus, but he sees much that’s dangerous in Erasmus and goes after him in The Bondage of the Will.
How did the Reformers view him generally? Was he on the wrong side of the gospel?
I think Luther’s conclusion, he is on the wrong side of the gospel. Because if you begin to say that we contribute something, we have something at stake, we are not entirely, totally depraved and dead in our trespasses and sins and there’s something remaining that is in us, then you are not understanding what Luther is going to call alien righteousness. And you’re not going to ultimately understand grace. So, for Luther… and this is where he says bondage of the will is really the centerpiece of the gospel… So, based on what Erasmus is doing, and really, he’s just reviving the old Pelagianism heresy, is all he’s doing, and going back to Augustine’s foe Pelagius… Luther is saying that’s not the gospel. I think, in terms of the other reformers, you have to appreciate Erasmus’s efforts as a humanist scholar and Beza, for instance, Calvin’s understudy in Geneva is going to play off of Erasmus’s text. He faults with Erasmus’s Greek text, and he’s going to publish his own Greek text. But that work was very much on the shoulders of Erasmus’s work. So, while there is an appreciation for him and his efforts, there is also a realization that Erasmus, in the end, was not on the side of the gospel
How is he important to the Reformation, then? Is it his publishing the Greek text, or because he prompted this debate with Luther, or is there more?
I think it helped to bring clarity. This is one of the things that debates do. You can put out teachings and then those teachings get challenged and as those teachings get challenged you want to bring clarity and you want to bring forcefulness. So Erasmus was a very crucial cog in the wheel, as it were, towards Luther writing The Bondage of the Will. That’s just one of those classics from the Christian tradition that bears rereading and is helpful. The other piece is, it’s not just that text piece, it’s also the whole ad fontes, the ‘to the source’ and Erasmus really heralded that as a humanist scholar. I think one other piece, and we see this probably more in Calvin. Luther’s education occurring as it did before the Reformation, obviously, very much reflected that medieval scholastic approach. So for him to graduate, receive his doctorate, he needed to master Peter Lombard sentences. And that was the way it was done and Lombard has pulled together the sources and the traditions and then you would memorize that, and then you would be a scholar and then you would be ready to teach. When Calvin comes to study at the University of Paris, humanism had begun to impact the universities and he was trained slightly differently. Even though they were both trained in the humanities and law, Calvin is going to be trained slightly differently and it’s going to reflect that ‘to the source’ and exegesis of the original text and applying methods of interpretation. And you’ll see it. You’ll even see it show up if you analyze Calvin’s sermons versus Luther’s sermons. They just read a little differently and some of that is reflective of some of the education that Calvin received. And we’ve got to give credit where credit is due. Some of that is due to the humanists and Erasmus is at the top of the heap.
We’re talking to Dr. Stephen Nichols about the Protestant Reformation. He is the author of The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World – as well as many other church history related books that you’ll want to check out on this page. Join us next time when Steve returns to talk about the primary religious and theological issues of the Protestant Reformation.
Steve, thanks so much for talking to us today.
My pleasure. Thank you.
Editor’s Note: Below are some titles by Dr. Stephen Nichols that will be of interest to you!
An Absolute Sort of Certainty: The Holy Spirit and the Apologetics of Jonathan Edwards
Buy the books
Pages From Church History: A Guided Tour of Christian Classics