Erasmus: His Life, Works, and Influence

Augustijn, Cornelis. Erasmus: His Life, Works, and Influence. Translated by J.C. Grayson, U of Toronto P, 1991. Print.

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Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466(?) – 1536) was an important figure of the Northern Renaissance. A biblical humanist, educator, satirist, and social theorist, Erasmus was implicated in many of the social and religious movements of his day. Roman Catholics identified him as a “Lutheran”, Luther dismissed him as an Epicurian without convictions, and Zwingli praised him as a forerunner of the Reformation. Cornelis Augustijn’s biography is a short but impressive introduction to one of the most misunderstood Christian thinkers in history.

Erasmus was a restless soul. Although he was trained as an Augustinian canon regular in the monastery of Steyn, he obtained permission from Pope Julius II to leave the monastery. For the rest of his life, Erasmus would have nothing positive to say about the monastery. The harsh discipline, bad food, and poor education did not suit his inquisitive temperament. In the late 15th century, the printing press made available volumes of the writings of Greek and Roman writers. Erasmus applied the philological tools of the Italian Humanists to the study of the Bible. He published his own Greek New Testament (the Novum Instrumentum omne) with an accompanying Latin translation. Many of his contemporaries were not pleased. The theology faculty at Louvain condemned any tampering with Jerome’s Vulgate. Erasmus’ Paraphrases were seen as an attempt to rewrite the Word of God. It didn’t help that the Renaissance scholar ridiculed Catholic piety in his satires. Noel Beda called Erasmus a “Lutheran”.

At first, Luther was impressed by Erasmus’ learning. Luther, too, was trained in humanism, but it soon became clear that the two men interpreted Paul’s epistles differently. Whereas Erasmus thought the “works of the law” in Galatians referred only to the ceremonial laws prescribed by Moses, Luther was convinced that the “law” referred to any Christian duty, including the Ten Commandments. Both contrasted inward and outward piety, but Luther emphasized human impotence while Erasmus emphasized man’s dignity as a being made in the image of God. Consequently, they had different soteriologies. Augustijn describes the debate on free will between Luther and Erasmus in two chapters.Although he gets the facts right, the author fails to mention Augustine of Hippo or William of Ockham anywhere in the book. The relationship between Grace, Predestination, and human freedom was widely debated in the Middle Ages.

Erasmus never started a religious movement. He was considered too unorthodox for Roman Catholics, but he refused to join the Protestant reformers. Despite his relative unimportance, Erasmus continues to interest scholars because of the progressive views he promoted. He opposed warfare, condemned the use of force in evangelizing the “New World”, and had relatively less misogynistic views about women than most of his contemporaries. He also believed that humanistic education could transform a society. The current political climate was my motivation for reading Augustijn’s biography. It didn’t disappoint. A larger biography might have given us more information about the theological controversies of his day, but Erasmus: His Life, Works, and Influence is nonetheless a very fine introduction to this “man for all seasons”.

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