Erasmus: The Last Moderate between Catholicism and Protestantism

This Thursday I’ll be hosting a book table at the Calvin Fine Arts Center where Justo González will be speaking. He will be speaking on the topic “From the Ends of the Earth: Mission at Our Doorstep.” As I generally do before a book table I browse some of the books by the author. I’ve read some of González before but it was good to go through some of his church history books again. The following discussion of Erasmus from volume 3 of A History of Christian Thought was particularly interesting.

“Protestants felt that, if Erasmus was to be true to what he had been advocating for years, he must join forces with them. This was not a proper reading of what Erasmus had been saying, for he had never advocated schism, and he felt that the Protestants themselves were too immersed in their own theological debates to be able to comprehend the simple teachings of the gospel. Furthermore, he and Luther were diametrically opposed in their approach to reformation. Erasmus’ irenic spirit found much to dislike in Luther’s bellicosity. For some time, Erasmus had refrained from an open attack on Luther, arguing that perhaps the success of Protestantism was a sign that God had judged the corruption of the church to be such that a drastic surgeon was needed. Events, however, forced him to change his tactics. He was being accused of being a Lutheran at heart, and Protestants were using his writings and his fame to further their cause. Henry VIII of England, Pope Adrian VI, and a host of friends and foes urged him to clarify his position. He finally decided to attack Luther, and chose to do so by composing the treatise On Free Will, for here was an issue which he clearly and sincerely disagreed with Luther. The latter responded with a vitriolic attack in The Bondage of the Will, where he showed once again that tendency toward exaggeration which Erasmus himself deplored in him. After that incident, Erasmus moved further and further away from Protestants, to the point that toward the end of his life he was accepting many things in the Catholic Church that he had formerly condemned. Although Protestants of humanistic inclinations, such as Philip Melanchthon, continued to hold him in great esteem, the general opinion among Protestants was that Erasmus was simply a weak and cowardly man who did not have the courage to stand up to his own convictions. This estimation, however, is not a fair evaluation of his motives, and is based on an incorrect interpretation of his views.”

“Erasmus did not fare much better within the Catholic camp, for here also there was little place for his spirit of moderation. Although he was able to live out his remaining years in relative peace in the midst of a world in turmoil, many of his followers–especially in Spain and Italy–did not fare as well. He himself was condemned by the Sorbonne, which took upon itself the task of safeguarding the newly defined Catholic orthodoxy. Twenty-three years after his death, when the first index of forbidden books was drawn up by Paul IV, his works were included in it.”

“This is why Erasmus represents the end of an age. After this time, and for almost four centuries, it would be very difficult to hold the moderate and conciliatory position between Protestantism and Catholicism that he took. In a sense, he was the last of a long series of moderate, non-schismatic reformers that is a persistent feature of medieval western Christianity.” (26-28)

History of Christian Thought

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About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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2 Responses to Erasmus: The Last Moderate between Catholicism and Protestantism

  1. Perhaps I heard it from Gonzalez, I don’t recall right now, but I’ve never forgotten Luther’s portrayal of Erasmus as one who “led the people out of Egypt but left them to die in the desert.” Moderates have always been attacked from both sides.

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