Integrity over Doctrine – A Brief Look at Erasmus

During the Renaissance, an age when tensions and aggressions were rising in the church, many were seeking to cling to their positions of power, prestige and wealth within the ecclesiastic structures. Reformation was brewing, both inside the Roman Catholic Church and outside, and a new age of appreciation for classicism and scholarship was developing. Critical alliances were being created and restructured between various feuding parties and the religious rift called the Protestant Reformation was materializing. Orthodox doctrine and traditional praxis were the most significant religious dimensions necessitating debates, with ecclesiology and sacraments being key elements in the discussions. At risk were the equally important treasures of eternal souls and temporal assets. Within this fray stood Erasmus, a great religious mind, exegetical thinker and biblical scholar, being courted by both sides of the battle but aligning himself fully with neither. He firmly believed in the necessity for reforming the church, but ultimately could not abide splintering it apart. In the current environment of disruption within and between denominations, where survival of institutions and accumulation of influence and power seem to be the vital stakes necessitating ecclesiastical warfare, can such a man, calling for rationality, forbearance and integrity, still speak to the church almost five hundred years after his death?

            The answer to that question, of course, will never realistically be known. It is speculation at best to propel what is known of a historical figure through five centuries of cultural and religious change, and then imagine his stand on modern issues facing the church. Nonetheless, the individual can be examined in light of his own context – his time and circumstances – and apply the apparent attitudes and philosophies he developed against contemporary situations. 

            Erasmus, the illegitimate son of a Dutch priest, “became a scholar of international reputation honored by Popes, princes and university scholars as a genius, prophet, and servant of Christ.”[1] Towards the end of his life, however, he was considered by Luther to be a coward for refusing to completely split with the Catholic Church. Likewise, after his death, the Roman Catholic Church placed his writings on the Index of prohibited books.[2]  The journey in between speaks of the love Erasmus held for Christianity and the church, as well as the reverence he had for learning, scripture and uprightness.

            Following years of study in Paris and Cambridge, and the development of friendships with the likes of Thomas More and John Colet who influenced him greatly, Erasmus became the central figure in the humanist movement, so named because of its concentration on the study of humanities.[3]  His humanist bent propelled him to develop several themes:

  • Denunciation of the theology of the schoolmen, philosophers and divines of the Middle Ages through the period of the Reformation, who spent much of their time on points of fastidious and abstract speculation. They were called ‘schoolmen’ because they taught in the medieval universities and schools of divinity;
  • Respect and reverence for the Greek and Latin fathers of the church;
  • The need to study scripture in the original languages, in order to derive its true meaning which was distorted by the Vulgate;
  • Study of the secular/pagan classics was a preparation for scriptural study, just as the classical world was a preparation for the revelation of Christ and Platonic philosophy was a preparation for the Gospel;
  • Humanist scholarship as an essential tool of the reformer. [4]

Writing was Erasmus’ preferred method of communicating his ideals, and he was both prolific and brilliant in a number of genres. The Handbook of the Christian Soldier (Enchiridion Christiani militis) offered to educated laity a vision of the Bible as the source of a renewal of piety and rediscovery of an inner religion. This became his platform for the renovation of the church. Evident in the Colloquies and Praise of Folly was the Erasmus who was sometimes an irreverent satirist of religion, the institutions and dissimulations of the Church, and the superstitions of late medieval piety. Also apparent in these works was a witty but profoundly somber moralist, offering scripturally based approaches for human social conduct. Erasmus’ edition of the first Greek New Testament (1515) – his exposé of the errors in the Latin Vulgate Bible – revealed the character of a proto-Protestant, a challenger of traditional doctrine, especially on the sacraments. In his pamphlets of the 1520s and 1530s, on behalf of Pope Leo X, Erasmus championed the cause of Free Will against Luther. The Ciceronian, from late in his life, showed how Erasmus conceived the relationship between humanist scholarship and religious reform.[5] These works represent the efforts of a theologian and commentator who was willing to take a long, hard look at the institution he loved, and frame solutions based on something other than a lineal thought process.

Erasmus, more importantly a wary reformer, attempted to provide his students and readers with a clear account of genuine Christian faith as he understood it. Christianity was a simple matter of piety, not mechanical legalistic devotional acts or convoluted pedagogic theological schemes. Erasmus maintained that the primary means for bringing about this simplification included education, explanation and rhetoric, the introduction of which to the laity would cleanse the church of the erroneous practices that obviated the simplicity of Christianity. He believed the future of the church rested in the participation of a theologically adroit laity, as opposed to a priesthood or monk-hood that surreptitiously preserved understandings of the mystery of God.

“To be a Christian [no longer] required a leap away from thought and knowledge. Indeed, it required of us a quest for truth and for righteousness that lead us continually into self-reformation.”[6] John B. Cobb described the Protestant church as one that allowed itself the room to re-examine itself and its tenets, and to repent of those beliefs that proved to be oppressive or in other ways lacking in social principles. The Reformers recognized a disconnection between the “true” church and the temporal church – a discrepancy between the church as it is and the church as it ought to be if it really were a divine institution.  It was clear to them that there was a disparity between the church in history and the church as it is described in the Scriptures.  While they owed this legacy of engagement of reason and faith to Erasmus, among others, the Reformers could not conceive of solutions that would satisfy Erasmus’ need to keep the church unified.

Currently most Protestant denominations are embroiled in schismatic diatribe not unlike the church at the time of Reformation, mostly based on doctrinal differences that range somewhere on a polarized scale of conservatism to liberalism. The church, already riven into myriad entities, is facing issues that will split it further apart rather than enable it to find some unifying basis. Within this framework, is there room for applying some of Erasmus’ ideals in order to find some common ground?

Theology can be viewed as carrying a double load of involvement in the church. It is an essential element in defining the various ecclesiastical bodies to which members belong. It also, however, helps congregants find meaning in their lives – both temporal and spiritual. Through this personal meaning or spirituality, laity can then participate in the discussions surrounding potentially divisive issues. As Erasmus argued, it is primarily a concentration on the survival of an institution, and the concern over individual power, that propels the select few to decide and decree doctrinal tenets and spoon-feed the resulting conclusions to the membership.

On a lineal spectrum, the conservative end of the spectrum seems to promote a narrowing of theological perspective to a very limited number of essential components, which are then reflected in an array of programs aimed at saving the older institutions of mainline churches. Within these religious camps, avoiding the possibility of congregational disconnection is accomplished by simply stating rigid belief systems that the church attendee either accepts as definitive, or rejects and continues the search for a meaningful church home. More liberal camps, being open to more discussion and theological wrestling,  have in essence equally separated the members from the belief system of the church – handing them a carefully edited package of theology and change they may not find comfortable or digestible – by removing them from the conversation. The real discussion of critical issues largely occurs at the hierarchical levels to avoid ‘divisive’ discussion within the local church, which drastically diminishes the adherents’ ability to engage in the social issues behind the turmoil.

Mainline churches may need to decide whether their historical involvement in theological thought and reformation is a key component of their role in the world. If it is still critical, then these religious bodies need to stand apart from the divisive extremes of polarized combatants and act to educate and promote theological discussion in the local church. This is Erasmus’ offering to the current environment. Acting in love of God and neighbor should call to local churches to include their constituents in the ongoing theological debates resulting from ever-developing social issues. Refusal to include the laity – all laity not just the ‘leadership’ – may lead mainline denominations into a more devastating identity crisis than is currently being experienced. 

Erasmus called for a deep love of the church, not in its present form or methods, but in its original purpose. Churches must develop a level of integrity where compassion is more important than doctrine, grace is emphasized, love is practiced, and there is unity of purpose-not belief.   What we need in our churches is a desire to self-reflect, to ask informed questions, and to listen, once again, to the likes of Erasmus.


[1] David S. Dockery, “The Foundation of Reformation Hermeneutics: A Fresh Look at Erasmus”, Premise, the magazine of Center for the Advancement of Paleo Orthodoxy (CAPO), Volume II, Number 9 / October 19, 1995. p 6.

[2] The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP), Erasmus (1456-1536), The University of Tennessee – Martin website, http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/e/erasmus.htm.

[3] Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity Vol. 2 – The Reformation to the Present Day, New York: HarperCollins, 1985. p 10.

[4] Matthew Griffiths, “Erasmus and the Philosophy of Christ”, Culture and Belief Lecture Notes, University of Cardiff Homepage on the Wales Civic Trust Website, lecture date:7 October 1995, http://www.civictrustwales.demon.co.uk/a205/erasmus.htm.

[5] Ibid

[6] John B. Cobb Jr., Do Old-Line Churches Have a Future?, paper presented at Augustana College, Sioux Falls, SD, October, 1998, http://www.religion-online.org/cgi-bin/relsearchd.dll/showarticle?item_id=292.

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