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Erasmus & Luther: Their Attitude To Toleration -Robert H. Murray Litt.D.

GREAT is the domination of Voltaire over the eighteenth century, great is the domination of Goethe over the first half of the nineteenth century, but greater still is the domination of Erasmus over the opening years of the sixteenth century. Latin was then the common language of literary men of all nations, and over them all Erasmus reigned supreme: his was the seminal mind of the whole continent. In Poland he ruled through the palatine of Cracow, Christopher of Szdlowicki, the Bishop of Plock, Andreas Kryzcki, and John a Lasco. In England he exercised his sway through Lord Mountjoy, Sir Thomas More, Sir Richard Pace, Cuthbert Tunstall and Cardinal Wolsey. Poland and England were in those days countries sufficiently remote, yet the influence of the humanist was realized in both. Perhaps no one ever demonstrated more clearly the wisdom of Plato’s advice—that the world should be ruled by philosophers. The oracle at Delphi was not more consulted by the perplexed Greeks, nor were its utterances received with more profound deference.

The position of Erasmus was not a new one. The learned doctors of the Middle Ages were his predecessors. In that greatest century of their period, the thirteenth, they had created a method of thought. In the fourteenth they evolved a system of ecclesiastical government. In the fifteenth, through the work of the conciliar theory at the Councils of Bâle and Constance, they directed the policy of the Church. What a body of men had accomplished, one man was now to accomplish. Yet was he one? Had he not at his command that formidable machine, the printing-press, to diffuse his ideas throughout Europe? The printing-press is in Germany in 1462; it goes to Rome in 1464, to Venice in 1469, and to Paris in 1470. There are no humanists in the South when Erasmus appears except Giles of Viterbo and the formidable figure of Nicholas Machiavelli. Bembo is a mere Ciceronian, and Sannazar a fastidious poet. Lorenzo Valla passed away in 1457, Pico della Mirandola and Angelo Poliziano in 1494, and Marsilio Ficino in 1499. Italian genius of the rank of Vecellio Titian and Michael Angelo henceforth turns to marble or canvas. The Renaissance crosses the Alps, and the snows of the mountains mark the sign of the Cross on its brow. At Rome and at Florence it was at home in the Court, whereas in Germany its true home was the University. The North has its artist in Albrecht Dürer, its scientist in Nicholas Copernicus. Though Julius Cæsar Scaliger is a native of Padua, he forsakes Italy. Johann Reuchlin hails from Pforzheim, Guillaume Budé and Henri Estienne from Paris, John Colet and Sir Thomas More from London, and Desiderius Erasmus from Rotterdam. Distinguished as Erasmus is as a humanist, he is at least equally distinguished as a great Christian.

With fine insight the portrait of Holbein represents the scholar standing at his desk, writing letter after letter, treatise after treatise, settling questions of grammar, of morality and of theology. He is always reading, writing and thinking. For him to live is to write, and to write is to live. With Petrarch, he could say, “Scribendi enim mihi vivendique unus finis erat.” He was more anxious to express ideas than to impress people. Life, however, saved him from being merely a humanist. “Erasmus and Reuchlin,” confessed Hutten, “are the two eyes of Germany.” “Not to respect, love and venerate Erasmus proves a man lacking in goodness and learning,” was the opinion of Lefèvre d’Étaples. Conrad Mutianus esteemed him “more eloquent than the eloquent Jerome,” and Andreas Carlstadt did not hesitate to declare him “the prince of theologians,” superior even to St. Ambrose and St. Austin. “To tell the truth,” Budé wrote to him, “I do not see among the old theologians any they can legitimately prefer to you.” “Almost all scholars are Erasmians,” so Johann Eck informed him. “What happiness is ours,” maintained Lambert Hollonius, “to live in a century in which, at your instigation, under your leadership and thanks to your personal action, letters see their day at the same time as true Christianity.” For John Calvin, Erasmus is “the honour and delight of letters.” Philip Melanchthon considered himself “as a simple soldier under the standards of Erasmus.” To Martin Luther, for a time at least, he was “our honour and our hope,” the “king of literature.” It is noteworthy that many of Erasmus’s admirers are in Holy Orders and members of the Universities. In Italy and Germany, though not in France, the spread of the Renaissance was largely the work of the Universities. In the towns, with the rich merchant or the dignitary of the Church, the new learning gained ground.

The adoration reached such a pitch that Conrad Mutianus and Beatus Rhenanus1 testified that this superhuman man merited the honours due to a god: to Chansonette he was in truth the “divine Erasmus,” the “new Evangelist.” “Thou incomparable man,” declared the humanist Wilhelm Nesen, “thou hast the power to bestow immortality.” He was “the first to turn aside from the theologians of the troubled seas of scholasticism,” according to Urbanus Rhegius, “towards the clear source of sacred letters. We are witnesses of an admirable spectacle: belles-lettres and sacred letters are so closely united that we study them at the same time without scandal, though the manœuvres of the ignorant had made enemies of them, not to say even more. It is to your works that we owe this change; you have removed all obstacles in order to substitute at last, in the schools of the theologians, for the knowledge of a vain philosophy the heavenly wisdom of the cross. Rejoice and triumph, O Erasmus.” Ulrich Zasius declared him to be the greatest of all the scholars Germany had ever possessed. “It is he that posterity, that intelligent and free judge, will proclaim the author of the increasing light of this century,” thought Johann Reuchlin, “the first to lead us to the fountain head, he has made the classical tongues our own.” “The man of Rotterdam,” wrote John Maldonatus from Burgos, “is the king of the schools of Spain.” Scholars like Eoban of Hesse, Justus Jonas and Caspar Schalbe made pilgrimages to his home. “The name of Erasmus,” added John Colet, “will never perish.”

This admiration was not confined to the study of the scholar. Like Voltaire, he was courted by kings and princes. He can tell Polydore Vergil in 1527: “I have drawers full of letters from kings, princes, cardinals, dukes, nobles, bishops, written with the utmost civility. I receive uncommon and valuable presents from many of them.” German and Italian princelings felt honoured by receiving letters from him. “The Emperor implores me to come to Spain,” he tells the Bishop of Augsburg, “King Ferdinand wants me at Vienna, Margaret in Brabant, and Henry in England; Sigismund asks me to go to Poland and Francis to France, and all offer me rich emoluments.” “Everywhere the greatest monarchs invite me,” he told Carondelet, April 30, 1526. Charles V nominated him a councillor and gave him a pension. Ferdinand, the brother of the Emperor, evinced the warmest regard for him: so too did Sigismund, the King of Poland. Francis I envied the glory of his rival in possessing such a subject, tried to attract him to Paris, “promising him mountains of gold,” and writing him a letter with his own hand. “They say that it is only the third he has written since he ascended the throne.” With the assistance of Budé, he besought Erasmus to consent to come, assuring him of wealthy livings if he would undertake the direction of the Collège de France, that institution which was to become the rival of Rome and Athens, counteracting the reactionary tendency of the Sorbonne and the Parlement. Charles de Tournon, Archbishop of Embrun, seconded these efforts of his royal master. Scholars like Budé, Nicholas Berauld, de Brie, Cop and J. de Pins, churchmen like Poncher or Huë, magistrates like Ruzé and Deloynes owned him as the head of their school. Henry VIII was equally attracted by him, assigning him a pension, corresponding with him, and almost becoming his collaborator.

Though the humanist was not always on friendly terms with the Church, the popes, from motives of policy or from genuine admiration, promised him marks of their esteem. Leo X accepted with gratitude the dedication of his edition of the New Testament, and recommended the editor to Henry VIII. Adrian VI endeavoured to bring him to Rome, there to compose books in defence of the Church. Paul III entertained the idea of bestowing on him a cardinal’s hat, and named him Prior of Deventer. Since the time of Abelard, no man of letters exercised such widespread influence. It was indeed fitting that the Church should pay regard to the labours of her great son, for he embodied the religious, just as much as the literary, tendencies of the new age. He had reunited in his own person forms of knowledge and tastes that seemed incompatible, “making letters chant the name of Christ, though they were formerly almost pagan.” “I have developed languages and letters,” he could proudly inform Louis Ber, “for the greatest good of theology.” He was the genius through whose clear brain all the questions of the time circulated, finding there an alembic whence they emerged clarified. What Leonardo da Vinci meant to the world in 1500, what Bacon meant in 1600, what Leibniz meant in 1700, what Goethe meant in 1800, Erasmus meant in the second and third decades of the sixteenth century.

That the eulogies of the friends of the scholar were deserved is manifest from his early correspondence. Two letters of the years 1498 and 1504 render this evident. In the first he maintains, “I desire nothing except to secure leisure to live wholly to one God, to repent the sins of my indiscreet youth, to pore over the Holy Scriptures, either to read or to write something.” In the second he writes, “I shall … address myself in freedom and with my whole heart to divine studies in which I mean to spend the remainder of my life.… I have perused a good part of the works of Origen, under whose teaching I think I have made some progress. He seems to disclose some original springs and points out the principles of theological science.” To John Colet he confides: “You will find me a stranger to ambition … who yields easily to all in doctrine, to none in faith.” In another communication to the English humanist his aims stand out: “In your dislike of that sort of neoteric divines, who grow old in mere subtleties and sophistical cavillings, your opinion is entirely my own. In our day, Theology, which ought to be at the head of all literature, is mainly studied by persons who from their dullness and lack of sense are scarcely fitted for any literature at all.” “I am ready,” he informed Bensrott, “to pawn my clothes rather than be deprived of Greek books.” “The moment I get some money,” he confessed, “I will buy Greek books, and then clothes.”

Theology to Erasmus is truth, truth which must influence life. The aim of all religion is less to enlighten the mind than to transform the heart. Faith, hope and charity are the essence of Christianity. “What is religion?” is the question he addresses to Richard Foxe, Bishop of Winchester. “Is it anything else but true and perfect love? Is it not to die with Christ? Is it not to live with Him? Is it not to be only a body, only a soul with Christ?” Through the Saviour we are one with God, and therefore one with all men. Theology requires a foundation of learning. For Erasmus is clear that if God does not require our knowledge, He does not require our ignorance. Therefore, at the age of twenty-two, in 1488, he had commented on the Epistle to the Romans. In 1505 he had published a Latin translation of the New Testament of Lorenzo Valla, with notes. In 1507 he asked Aldus Manutius to publish the Greek text of the New Testament. Throughout his early work there runs the assumption that theological knowledge is ascertainable, for it depends on the understanding of the text of the Bible, which, in spite of problems of interpretation, is clear. The efforts of the schoolmen, those pseudo-theologians, are vain. They define the indefinable, they distinguish the indistinguishable, and they divide the indivisible. “A part is divided into three; the first of these three parts into four, and each of these four is divided again into three.… What is further removed from the manner of the Prophets, of Christ, of the Apostles?” All the scholastic philosophers, except St. Thomas Aquinas, fall under his censure. Erasmus is wearied with the discussions on essence, accident, the nature of the angels and their power of acquiring knowledge, the infinity of intelligibles, the nature of God, the problem whether He could do otherwise than He has done, and the like. Such questions are neither in the Gospels nor in the Fathers. They are like the heads of the Hydra: the more you cut them, the more they grow. He thoroughly agreed with St. Ambrose that it did not please God to save men by dialectic.

The Enchiridion Militis Christiani, 1503, shows that its author was as well aware as his friend Colet that the Church stood in urgent need of a purge from formalism. Rites, he argued, ceremonies and ecclesiastical rules possess in themselves no value. Indeed Erasmus was careful to let Colet know that “I wrote [it] to display neither genius nor eloquence, but simply for this—to counteract the error which makes religion depend on ceremonies, and in more than Jewish observances, while strangely neglecting all that pertains to true piety. I tried to teach, moreover, the art of piety after the manner of those who have composed the rules of [military] discipline.” He proposes remedies against five principal vices, and these remedies are based on the plain teaching of Christ. He avoids all reference to a final ecclesiastical authority, though he does not hesitate to assume the supremacy of Christ. Men may fast, may worship saints, and may seek absolution; but their salvation does not abide in these forms. He nowhere urges the appeal to the existing Church as the ultimate one. A sound, sane, reasoned individual judgment in the interpretation of tradition he emphasized just as Petrarch had done. The goal of all our efforts is Christ, and the road to Him is faith. “Faith is the only door which leads us to Christ.” He develops precisely the same conception of faith in his Paraphrases, where he takes occasion to point out that in it “there is no compelling force, but by it all are invited” to come to Him. His is “no unmeaning word, but love, simplicity, patience, purity.” Erasmus, like all humanists, was not prepared to believe in faith without works, but he was obviously prepared to lay more stress on faith than on works, and more stress on liberty than on grace. This “dagger of the Christian knight” poured scorn on the acceptance of scholastic dogmas and on the performance of outward rites. If men must adore the bones of Paul locked up in a casket, let them also adore the spirit of Paul which shines forth from his writings. If men honour the image of Christ’s face carved in wood or stone, or painted upon canvas, how much more ought they to honour the image of His mind expressed by the art of the Holy Spirit in the Gospel writings.

In the spirit of Rabelais, he censures the monks for their superstitious observance of ceremonies, for the hatred they display in exacting them from others, and for the consequent haughty censorship they exercise over their lives. He attacks the monks, but he does not attack their institution: the foundations of the monastery are designedly left unmoved. He is as little attached to rites as Lefèvre d’Étaples, though like the French scholar he does not mean to suppress them. In a word, the Church is an historical institution with a Divine foundation. Unlike Colet, he bestows more importance on the allegorical than on the literal meaning of the Bible. He warns men against the latter interpretation, exhorting them to break the hard and bitter husk so as to reach the sweet kernel—the spiritual sense—which is concealed within, and laying emphasis on the words of Jesus, “It is the Spirit which quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing.” “The Bible is,” in his view, “sterile if we do not find the hidden meaning,” at once pointing out the influence of Platonism on this method of interpretation. Erasmus, like Pico della Mirandola and Lefèvre d’Étaples, finds allegory everywhere in the sacred record. The Story of the Fall is an allegory: so are the Flight into Egypt, the Birth of Isaac, the number of the wars of Israel against the Philistines, the adventures of Jonah. There are allegories in the history of the Judges and Kings of Israel just as they are present in the history of Livy. Nor are these allegories confined to the Old Testament: they are just as much in the New. We cannot, he remarks, forget how often Jesus spoke in parables. “The Gospel has its flesh and has also its soul.” There are, he admits, abuses in this method, but the abuse does not prevent the use; and this method marks the time “when divine wisdom lisped for us,” whereas now it speaks more plainly: herein is progress.

Religion to the author is a process, not an act. Virtue, he insists, is a becoming. If it is true, he contends, in the spirit of Socrates, that evil is the result of ignorance, the first condition of virtue is knowledge of one’s self. Let man look inward before he looks outward, though he is careful to add, “Carry out nothing under the pressure of feeling, but everything by reason.” It is easy, therefore, to understand the high place that education occupies in religion. Stoicism will teach serenity in suffering, Sparta will speak of devotion to one’s country. The holiness of Phocion, the poverty of Fabricius, the magnanimity of Camillus, the severity of Brutus, the modesty of Pythagoras, the integrity of Cato—these are plainly written in the annals of Greece and Rome. Erasmus is well aware that these men did not hold the doctrine of the fall of man. “What antique philosophy calls reason,” he teaches, “is what Paul sometimes calls Spirit, sometimes the hidden man, sometimes the law of reason. What for philosophy is feeling is for him the flesh, the body, or the man as the world sees him, or the law of his members. Plato has imagined two souls in man; and in this man Paul discovers two beings so profoundly united, that neither can exist without the other in heaven or hell; so completely distinct that the death of the one is the life of the other.”

Antiquity looks to reason, Christianity to grace. In the union of the ideals of Antiquity and Christianity, man becomes complete: he is a whole being. He stands out against the asceticism of the Middle Ages, and against the paganism of the Renaissance. In classical times the State left no room for the individual. In mediæval times he is always part of a body or a class, a member of a guild or a fraternity, a squire or a knight. At last he is himself, knowing himself through the knowledge of the past and the saintliness of the present. The former, Erasmus allows, may be unduly cultivated: the renaissance of antiquity may be, as in Italy, only another name for the renaissance of paganism. “It is useful,” he shows, “to taste profane literature … but, as I have said, to a certain age, with measure, with prudence and with careful choice … in short, what is vital in the closest intimacy with Christ.” The Fathers he recommends are Origen, Ambrose, Austin, Jerome, whose books he read with increasing admiration: all these were interpreters after his own heart. Like Eusebius and his favourite Jerome he returns to the utility as well as the beauty of the classical poets in understanding the inspiration of Scripture. Towards the end of the book the Paulinism of the German reformer seems foreshadowed, though Erasmus had no special affinity with the mind of the Apostle to the Gentiles. Paul is “the light of the Church,” the inspiring interpreter of faith and grace. The scholar discerns opposition between dogma and faith, between the Church and the Gospel, but it is an opposition capable of reconciliation in a disciplinary or a doctrinal development. He does not demand a revision of dogma, nor does he deny its truth. What he seeks in the Church is an understanding frame of mind to the new knowledge, a freer, deeper and more spiritual attitude to religion. The Enchiridion militis christiani failed to commend itself to Ignatius Loyola, but it found favour with Guillaume Budé, William Tyndale and the future Adrian VI, then a sober-minded Dutch professor.

Eight years after the appearance of the Enchiridion came a book which dissolved all Europe in laughter, the Moriæ Encomium, The Praise of Folly. The Enchiridion was intellectual and religious, the new work was classical and humanistic. For if on the one hand the author belongs to the Renaissance, on the other he belongs just as unmistakably to the Reformation. At a time in which printing was yet in its infancy, the first edition appeared with no less than 1800 copies, an enormous issue for those days, yet less than a month after the appearance of the book for sale there were no more than 600 with the bookseller. It was printed more than seven times in the course of a few months. To the monks his satire was as the sword of Gideon, and to all his wit was as the spear of Ithuriel. Fortunate it was for Erasmus that Folly wore such a mask of jest when she appeared on the scene. The lash of Juvenal or Swift is forgotten in the mocking smile of Lucian or Voltaire. It is no matter of surprise that the creator of the Moriæ Encomium never formally joined the party of reform. His was not the enthusiasm of his younger rival: his was the calm observation of the irrationalities of mankind. How much satire undermined the prestige of Rome is plain to all who turn over the leaves of Sebastian Brandt’s Ship of Fools, the Vadiscus and other pungent writings of Ulrich von Hutten, the Epistolæ Obscurorum Virorum of Crotus Rubianus and others, the Facetiæ and the Triumphus Veneris of Heinrich Bebel, and the Pantagruel and Gargantua of Rabelais. Is satire the price which mankind pays for freedom? Its roll of service includes the assaults of Luther on the monks, of Bacon on the Schoolmen, of Pascal on the Jesuits, of Butler on the Puritans, of Voltaire and Anatole France on superstition, and of Bentham on lawyers. Shaftesbury was the opponent of enthusiasm, that is fanaticism, which, like all convictions, he would have exposed to the test, not of persecution, but of wit and humour. These satirists realized the sagacity of this expedient. Their pamphlets circulated on all sides, creating and moulding public opinion. They assumed that the corruption of the clergy in general, and the monks in particular, was a matter known to all. The Ship of Fools is in reality what the Praise of Folly is only on the surface. It is a skit on the follies of mankind, whereas the work of Erasmus is, in fact, an exposure of the follies and frauds of those who professed to serve the Church. For this very reason it must be counted among the forces preparing for the Reformation. Erasmus, Reuchlin and Lefèvre were, in spite of themselves, the precursors of Luther, Zwingli and Calvin.

The author satirized follies of all kinds, the student for his sickly look, the grammarian for his self-satisfaction, the philosopher for his quibbling, the sportsman for his love of butchery, the superstitious for his belief in the virtues of images and shrines, the sailor for his folly in praying to the Virgin, and the sinner for his foolishness in believing in the efficacy of pardons and indulgences. The king no less than his subjects, the cardinal no less than his clergy, winced at the scourge of this Merry Andrew. To Folly mankind is indebted for all the happiness they enjoy. She not only gives life itself, but all that contributes to its pleasure. At her suggestion woman was created, “a foolish, silly creature, no doubt, but amusing and agreeable, and well adapted to mitigate the gloom of man’s temper by familiar intercourse.” Woman owes all her advantages to Folly. The aim of her life is to please man, and this she could not do without Folly. If any one doubts this, he has only to consider how much nonsense a man talks to a woman whenever he wishes to enjoy the pleasure of her society. Friendship, love, marriage, success in life, all are dependent on the aid of Folly.

The credulity of the time moves the writer to indignation, which is not quite in keeping with the light tone Folly deigned to assume. She might laugh at those who calculated with mathematical precision the number of years, months and hours of purgatory, and at those who fondly believed that they could wipe off a whole life of sin by a small coin. “But what shall I say of those who flatter themselves with the pleasant delusion that they can grant pardons for sins, and who measure out the periods of purgatory, as it were, with time-pieces, meting out centuries, years, months, days, hours, as if by a mathematical table where there could be no possibility of error? Or of those who, trusting to certain little magic marks and prayers which some pious impostor invented either for amusement or with a view to gain, promise themselves wealth, honours, pleasures, abundance, unfailing health, and a green old age, and in the other world a seat next Christ himself—which, by the way, they would not wish to reach for a long time yet; that is, not till the pleasures of this life, however much against their will and however closely they may have clung to them, shall nevertheless have flown—then they would wish those heavenly joys to follow. Here is a man—say a merchant, or a soldier, or a judge—who thinks that by payment of a single coin out of his robberies, all the vileness of his life may once for all be swept away, and imagines that so many perjuries, lusts, fits of drunkenness, so many quarrels, impostures, perfidies, acts of treachery, can be redeemed as by contract—aye, so redeemed that he may now return to a new round of crime. But could any frame of mind be more foolish—I mean happier—than theirs who by the daily recitation of those seven verses from the Psalms promise themselves more than supreme happiness?… Now, if in this state of things any odious man were to rise up and proclaim what is doubtless true—Thou shalt not perish miserably if thou livest well; thy sins will be forgiven, if to thy money thou addest hatred of thy misdeeds, and after that tears, watching, prayer, fasts, and changest thy whole manner of life; such and such a saint will bless thee if thou wilt endeavour to follow his example—I say, if the wise man should bray out such truths as these, behold of how great happiness he would rob mankind, and into what confusion he would plunge them.”

The theologians suffer from the lash of Folly: “They are deeply in my debt, as it is I who bestow upon them that self-love by which they are able to fancy themselves caught up to the third heaven, and to look down upon the rest of mankind as if they were so many sheep feeding on the ground; and indeed they pity their miserable condition, while they are themselves by so vast an array of magisterial definitions, conclusions, corollaries, propositions explicit and implicit, and have so many loopholes of escape, that no chains, though they should be forged on the anvil of Vulcan, can hold them so fast but that they will contrive to extricate themselves; for which purpose they are provided with a number of fine distinctions with which they can cut all knots more easily than the sharpest axe, and with a vast supply of newly invented terms and words of prodigious length. They are extremely ingenious, too, in explaining the profoundest mysteries of divinity; as, by what process the world was created and fashioned; through what channels the plague-spot of original sin was transmitted to posterity; in what manner, by what degrees, and in how long a time, Christ was made perfect in the Virgin’s womb; how accidents can subsist in the consecrated wafer without any substance in which to adhere.”

The scholastic system endures much from the lash of the sprite. Its originators “possess such learning and subtlety that I fancy that even the Apostles themselves would need another Spirit, if they had to engage with this new race of divines about questions of this kind. Paul was able ‘to keep the faith,’ but when he said ‘Faith is the substance of things hoped for,’ he defined it very loosely. He was full of charity, but he treated of it and defined it very illogically in the thirteenth chapter of the first epistle to the Corinthians. The Apostles, too, were in the habit of consecrating the Host, which they surely did most religiously; and yet if they were questioned as to the terminus a quo and the terminus ad quem, the nature of transubstantiation, how the same body can be in different places at the same time, the difference between the attributes of the body of Christ in heaven, on the cross, and in the sacrament of the Mass; at what moment of time transubstantiation takes place; whether the prayer through which it is effected is a discreet quantity having no permanent punctum, they would not, I fancy, have answered with as much acumen as our Scotists now display in their dissertations and definitions.” Folly, all unconscious of her high mission, was lowering the prestige of the orthodox, thereby preparing the way in no small degree for the reformer. Kings and nobles, cardinals and bishops, Leo X himself, read the Moriæ Encomium with a delight which would have been much diminished had they grasped its inner significance.

From Church to State is an easy transition, and accordingly in 1515 Erasmus wrote the Institutio Principis Christiani, which discusses the education of a Christian prince. Machiavelli’s survey of the same problem had been then in private circulation for two years. The humanist admits the position that the king rules by right divine, and draws the conclusion that his rule ought to be divinely right. He tells Prince Charles that “there is no duty by the performance of which you can more secure the favour of God than by making yourself a prince useful to the people.” If princes were perfect in every virtue, a pure and simple monarchy might be desirable; but as this can hardly ever be in actual practice, as human affairs are now, a limited monarchy is preferable, one in which the aristocratic and democratic elements are mixed and united, and so balance one another. This is the mixed State which Cicero declared the Roman State to be. The prince is urged to consider that “these are not your subjects whom you force to obey you, for it is consent which makes the prince, but those are your true subjects who serve you voluntarily,” a conception which the author afterwards applied to problems of the Church. Erasmus, however, virtually employs Quesnay’s argument of pauvres paysans, pauvre royaume; pauvre royaume, pauvre roi. The prince of the Italian is unmoral, that of the cosmopolitan is moral. To Machiavelli the saying of Louis XIV is true, to Erasmus that of Frederick the Great is no less true. The prince of the scholar is good, not because he is a king by right divine, not because he derives his authority from the Church, but simply because he does his duty as a man in the station of life to which he has been called. Both Erasmus and Machiavelli leave the people to the one side in their State. Erasmus, in true Renaissance spirit, teaches that the prince is to be far removed from the opinions held by the people: it is low, common, unworthy of him to feel with the people. As in the Praise of Folly there is a strong appeal made on behalf of peace and for international arbitration. For “Christ founded a bloodless empire. He wished it always to be bloodless. He delighted to call himself the Prince of Peace.”

Martin van Dorp, successively professor of philosophy and theology at Louvain University, received in 1515 an illuminating epistle from the scholar. Erasmus had not received his letter, but had seen a copy of it in the hands of a friend in which van Dorp regrets the publication of the Praise of Folly, approves of his labours upon St. Jerome, and dissuades him from editing the New Testament. Erasmus is still sick from his voyage, and tired of riding, yet he thinks it better to make any reply than leave a friend in this persuasion, whether of his own or put into his head by others. He regrets the publication of the Praise of Folly, enters upon its defence, and speaks of the provocation he has received. He had no other object in its composition than in his Enchiridion, his tract De Principis Institutione, and his Panegyricus. Like princes who keep fools at their courts, to correct lighter vices by their freedom of speech, Erasmus hopes by jesting and good humour to remove the faults of his time. He tells how the Praise of Folly was written in More’s house, on his return from Italy in a fit of illness, to wile away the time. He denies that its humour is bitter or offensive, and cannot believe that it has produced so great a disturbance, and alienated from him the minds of the theologians. He proves it to be otherwise by the uninterrupted friendship of Warham, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and others. They only can have taken offence who, after the shallow training in the rules of Alexander Gallus, the ten categories of Aristotle, a smattering of Scotus and Occam, bristle up with conceit, despise St. Jerome as a pedant because they do not understand him, and turn up their noses at Greek, Hebrew, and even Latin. “If you promise yourself a true knowledge of theology, without close study of languages, you deceive yourself completely.” He condemns the excessive reverence paid to Aristotle and to human traditions. There is no need of trifling questions. Decree follows upon decree; and matters have come to this pass that Christendom depends, not on the plain words of Christ, but on the definitions of the schoolmen and the authority of the bishops such as they are. The recovery of the world to true Christianity is hopeless. Many holy men deplore this state of things.

Then he proceeds to defend certain passages attacked in the Praise of Folly, justifies his proceedings in the New Testament, the preference he gives to Greek manuscripts, and the superior purity of their text. He shows how much more exhaustive is his procedure than that of either Lorenzo Valla or Lefèvre d’Étaples. The latter merely made some notes on St. Paul’s Epistles, whereas he is translating the whole of the New Testament according to the Greek manuscripts. The Greek text is given in the opposite column; the notes are separate, and in justification of his emendations. He should not fear to dedicate labours to any bishop or cardinal, and does not doubt that van Dorp will be pleased with the book when he sees it.

Erasmus corresponds with Leo X, beginning by complimenting him on his descent from Lorenzo de’ Medici, and then proceeding to speak of his labours on the New Testament. The Pope is a musician: he is a lover of the fine arts. He builds the new basilica of St. Peter’s, allowing the sale of indulgences for the cost thereof. As Tetzel sells the indulgences in Germany, Luther attacks their sale, not as a reformer, but as an orthodox member of the Church. It is possible to look on the architect of St. Peter’s as a friend to toleration, for he provides the occasion which makes the monk begin to realize how far he is drifting from his own communion. Leo delights in the comedies of Ariosto and Bibbiena no less than in Erasmus’s edition of the New Testament. He protects the Jews, and actually has a Jewish doctor. Erasmus singles out his tolerance as one of his chief merits. Though he signs the decree of the Lateran Council 1512–17, in favour of the censorship of books, he is in no wise moved by the agnostic speculations of Pomponazzi in 1516 on the immortality of the soul. This papal Mæcenas exercises a spell over Erasmus, who feels in his court “the sweetness of liberty, the riches of the libraries, the agreeable intercourse of so many learned men, the delightful conversations.” The scholar speaks for all his craft when he tells a cardinal, “Before I can forget Rome I must plunge into the river of Lethe.” The patriotism of a Luther is unfelt. With insight Erasmus sees that “each has his country, it is the common country [of humanism].” When Calixtus was menaced by Jacopo Piccinini, he retorted that he slept soundly because he had three thousand men of letters to support him, and for similar reasons Leo X slept soundly. The Pope was a believer in astrology: so too was Erasmus. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Leo takes a sober view of occurrences which they regard as miraculous. He accepts the dedication of a poem by Rutilius Namatianus, describing the teaching of Christianity as worse than the poison of Circe: the latter only transforms the bodies, whereas the former transforms the minds of men.

It is always difficult for the priest to understand—and control—the prophet. Innocent III had just succeeded in controlling Dominic and Francis of Assisi. Alexander VI naturally failed with Savonarola. Leo X corresponded with Erasmus because both were humanists, not because Erasmus was a reformer. The Pope did not want Erasmus: he received Luther. Erasmus and his scholars vanished: the Lutherans take their place. A cardinal at thirteen, a pope at thirty-seven, how could he grasp the standpoint of the Augustinian monk? Did Leo say, “Let us enjoy the papacy, since God has given it to us”? Did Voltaire, not Louis XIV, say, “L’état, c’est moi”? Whether the Pope or the King uttered these obiter dicta is immaterial: what is material is that each accurately describes the attitude of the Pope and the King respectively. Indeed the Voltairian remark is applicable to Leo, who regarded himself primarily as a politician. Did he not tell the Imperial Ambassador in 1521 that he rejoiced more over the conquest of Milan than he had rejoiced over his election to the papal chair? It is in keeping with the character of his countrymen. “Let us be Venetians first,” held Father Paolo Sarpi, “and Christians after.” How warmly Gino Capponi approved the saying, “Praised be those who love their own country rather than the safety of their souls!” That Leo was an utter worldling is obvious. That he was a double-dealing worldling is not so obvious, nevertheless it was the fatal flaw in his character. Always changing, he remained the same faithful son of the Renaissance. Did he not in a moment of confidence inform Castiglione that he might safely believe his bare word, for he could equally deceive by Briefs and Bulls?

The Pope was just as much—and just as little—interested in the work of Erasmus on the New Testament as he would be in any other manuscript. The outlook of Erasmus differed by worlds. He considered the only hope for the restoration and reformation of religion rested in the study of the New Testament, which ought to be drawn rather from the true source than from its lakes and rivulets. He gives an account of his work to Leo, his obligations to Archbishop Warham, to whom England is so much indebted. It was to men like Warham that he looked for the reform that was to be accomplished by the Church, and with the Church. Pirkheimer, the burgher humanist, receives a similar note. In it Erasmus tells him he is engaged on his edition of St. Jerome, has corrected the whole of the proofs of the New Testament, and added notes; that he is so worn out with his work that has now lasted six months, he can hardly keep his health; and that he expects to go to England in March.

In 1516 appeared at last the scholar’s edition of the New Testament. With the exception of Lorenzo Valla, it had not occurred to the Italian humanists to employ the new learning to clear the source of Christian theology. In the North, though not in the South, Greek rose from the dead with the New Testament in her hand. Erasmus published it under the title of the Novum Instrumentum, and indeed it proved to be a new instrument of thought. Though it was printed at Bâle, it was the result of his stay in Cambridge. He may be reckoned the first of the great scholars of that university to whom students of the apostolic writings owe so weighty a debt. In a beautiful old cloister of Queens’ College his study was situated. To the observer of the slow growth of toleration these rooms in the old tower are sacred. Doubtless his editing does not reach the level of Joseph Scaliger, Isaac Casaubon or Richard Bentley, but it merits the supreme distinction of being probably the first Greek edition that had ever appeared. “A shock thus was given,” writes Mark Pattison, “to the credit of the clergy in the province of literature equal to that given in the province of science by the astronomical discoveries of the seventeenth century.” Truth was no longer a treasure to be discreetly hidden in a napkin. The Novum Instrumentum, like the Novum Organum of Bacon, appealed to facts, not to authority.

That Erasmus attached a deep purpose to his edition is quite clear from his introduction. “The viaticum [i.e. the provision for the journey] is simple and at hand for all. Only bring a pious and open heart imbued above all things with a pure and simple faith.… Other philosophies, by the very difficulty of their precepts, are removed out of the range of most minds. The Bible rejects no age, sex, condition. Salvation is not more common and left open to all than the doctrine of Christianity: it drives away none save him who drives himself away.… I fight absolutely the opinion of those who refuse to the common people the right to read the divine letters in the popular language, as if Christ had taught unintelligent mysteries, understood only by some theologians.… I would wish that women should read the Gospels, read the Epistles of Paul, and I would to God that these books were translated into all languages, so as to be known, not only by the Scotch and Irish, but by the Turks and Saracens.… To make them understood is surely the first step. They might be ridiculed by many, but some would take them to heart. I long that the husbandman should sing portions of them to himself as he follows the plough, that the weaver should hum them to the tune of his shuttle, that the traveller should beguile with their stories the tedium of his journey.” Similarly Lefèvre d’Étaples insists that every Christian ought to know his Bible, for does it not contain the words of his Father? It was the noble prerogative of the genius of Erasmus not to find out a private way of his own, a special method for the few, but to lead the multitude, at the cost of the death of many of his dearest hopes, to see that the way of true genius must in the last resort be the way for all.

In 1502 Cardinal Francisco Ximenes de Cisneros, Archbishop of Toledo, had undertaken the Complutensian Polyglott, containing the Old Testament in Hebrew, Greek and Latin, and the New in Greek and Latin. The latter was first printed, but its publication was delayed until the Old Testament should be finished. The printer, Johann Froben of Bâle, the prince of publishers, heard of the labours of Ximenes, and applied to Erasmus to enable him to anticipate the edition of the Spanish scholar. It was a congenial application to Erasmus, and he hastily inspected the manuscripts he found at Bâle: these, however, were neither ancient nor good. He had also looked at manuscripts in Louvain, Paris and London. Three thousand three hundred copies of the first editions were printed: a second edition appeared in 1519, a third in 1522, a fourth in 1527—this became the definitive text—and another in 1535. Like the work of the Christian humanists of the Italian Renaissance, Ficino and Pico della Mirandola, the study of the ancient classics was at length a means to an end, and that end the service of Christ and His Church. Erasmus never served either better than by the edition he published on March 1, 1516, and dedicated to Leo X. To Fisher, the Bishop of Rochester, he mentions the applause which his edition has drawn from scholars and theologians, and the first great offers made to him by prelates and princes. St. Jerome will appear next at the Frankfort sales. He sends by Peter the One-eyed to Archbishop Warham, four volumes of the letters, which he will readily lend to Fisher. He had arrived at St. Omer, intending to cross to England, but has been attacked by a slight fever. After he had left Bâle, and was preparing to pass through Lorraine, he encountered large bodies of soldiers: he would gladly see an end of war.

He wrote a series of Latin paraphrases of all the books of the New Testament except the Revelation of St. John the Divine: the portion with much theology in it is that on St. Mark. These were meant to bring home to the sixteenth-century reader the substance and thought of the several books in a form making a ready appeal to his mind. No one, not even Wyclif, with his translation of the Scriptures, contributed so much to the Englishman’s knowledge of the Bible as these Paraphrases of the New Testament. They diffused the opinions of the author of the Praise of Folly on such matters as fasts and feasts, the monastic life, the worship of relics and the like. Authority received rude blows from comments like those on Matthew 16:18, “Upon this rock I will build my church.” The author expresses his surprise that these words should be applied exclusively to the Roman pontiff, “to whom they undoubtedly apply first of all, seeing that he is the head of the Christian Church; but they apply, not to him only, but to all Christians.” On Matthew 17:5, “Hear ye him,” he points out that “Christ is the only teacher who has been appointed by God Himself. Such authority has been committed to no theologian, to no bishop, to no pope or prince.” Authority is to be purified, not destroyed. Too many bishops forget that they are pastors “called to feed, not to shear the sheep.” The spiritual character of ecclesiastical power is paramount. Scholarly acumen is evident in the reference to the language of the New Testament, in the comment on Acts 10:36, that “the Apostles learned Greek, not from the orations of Demosthenes, but from the common conversation.” It was not a little difficult for the husbandman, the weaver and the traveller to distinguish between text and paraphrase, between St. Matthew and St. Erasmus. The blending of the two renders intelligible the belief not only in England but in Europe, that the Bible was composed as a pamphlet on the reforming side. It was, in fact, directed from its origin, the only origin at least that the ordinary man knew, against the Pope and the Romish Church.

He tells Henry Bullock, who may have attended his Greek class in 1511, that he is glad to find that his New Testament is applauded at Cambridge, although he has heard from very credible authority that there is a college there which has put out a decree that the book shall on no account enter its precincts. Think of men so absurd as to condemn a work they had not read, or reading could not understand. They had only heard, over their cups, or in knots in the market, that a new work had appeared which was to pluck out the eyes of the theologians like crows. They pretend that nothing of the kind ought to be attempted without consent of a General Council. May he not restore what they have depraved? He insists on this absurdity, and the discrepancies in the citations of the New Testament, meeting the objections against a new version. He thinks that even a General Council might overlook things, especially if they were not of necessity unto salvation. So they intend at all hazards to retain their mumpsimus! They vociferate, “O earth and heaven, Erasmus has corrected the Gospels!” He produces instances of new editions of parts of Scripture. Aristotle has lost none of his authority by his modern translators, nor Hippocrates and Galen by the labours of Cope. If grammar does not make a theologian, the absence of grammar does not.

Moreover, in the present Lateran Council it has been decreed that any book may be published by the consent of the ordinary. That approbation he has from the Bishop of Bâle and the Archbishop of Canterbury. He mentions various scholars who had expressed their satisfaction with the work. Are not dunces ashamed to revile what their own Chancellor, the Bishop of Rochester, has applauded? He sends a copy of the two papal letters in his favour. Ammonius has entrusted them to Pace, who is now ambassador with the Emperor Maximilian, to forward them to Maximilian at Bâle. Last winter he sent one volume to Leo X.

Are they afraid lest the book should entice their scholars and empty their lecture-room? Thirty years ago nothing was taught at Cambridge except Alexander’s Parva Logicalia, some scraps of Aristotle, and the Quæstiones of Duns Scotus. In process of time improved studies were added, including mathematics, a new Aristotle, a knowledge of Greek letters. What has been the consequence? The university can now hold its head with the highest, and has excellent theologians. Of course they must study the New Testament with greater attention, and not waste their time as heretofore on frivolous squabbles. He could name certain theologians who had never so much as read the Scriptures, or even turned over The Sentences or anything else. He can cheerfully await, the judgment of posterity. As the Eternal Edict of 1667 lay on the table before him, De Witt’s cousin, Vivien, the Pensionary of Dort, stuck the point of his penknife through it. “What are you doing?” inquired the Grand Pensionary. “I am trying to see what steel can do against parchment,” came the reply. Erasmus believed in parchment, though the parchment was that of learning, but now and then he was tempted to try the steel of abuse. The years that followed the edition of his New Testament brought much disappointment to the scholar. He saw the steady and peaceful growth of reform beginning to be broken by men who thought more of steel than of parchment. Shut out by temperament from the whirl of active life, his mind rose superior to his frail body and moved habitually on the plane of great thoughts and bold ideas. The ills of the day—in Church and State—his diagnosis reduced to one cause, and that was ignorance, ignorance of what Christ taught, ignorance of what the Bible meant, ignorance of what great contributions the Greek and the Latin had made to the education of the human race. These evils could all be cured by knowledge, and it was his duty to supply it. In spite of his disappointment, he never lost his belief in the growth of knowledge. Therefore he poured forth his editions of the Fathers, either wholly or in part. Jerome again, Austin, Cyprian, Arnobius, Hilary, Chrysostom, Irenæus, Ambrose, Lactantius, Basil, and, during the last months of his life, Origen. The sword and the stake had still many victims to claim, but he maintained his firm trust in parchment. Erasmus, like Jeremy Bentham, found not a doctrine but a method. The railleries of the Praise of Folly and the Colloquies proved mortal blows to the old mediæval theology, but the edition of the sacred text and the editions of the Fathers were one day to be the model of the new theology.

In the Paraphrases, as in the Enchiridion, Erasmus emphasizes the place of faith in the life of the Christ. “I call the Gospel,” he lays down, “the justification by faith in Jesus the Son of God, that the Law has promised and pre-figured.” The Gospel is “justification by faith in Jesus.” It is clear that Erasmus, like Lefèvre d’Étaples, anticipated Lutheran doctrine. As a commentary on the walk of the two disciples to Emmaus he asks, “What does Christ ask from his own but faith?… Through his faith they are justified.” “When Christ forgives sins he speaks neither of our satisfactions nor our works.… It suffices to come to the feet of Jesus.” “All that is bestowed on us for the good life, by Divine goodness, is bestowed on us by faith alone.… We are only the organ of the Divine power which works within us.” Weakness lies in the will of man: through it sin entered the world, leaving us able to desire good, not to do it, able to see God for a moment, not to possess Him for ever. He is clear that when men would do good evil is present with them, and he powerfully develops this dualism in man’s nature. Marsilio Ficino wrote his De Religione Christiana to prove that religion is natural to man, and in it he makes one of the earliest of the Renaissance attempts to reconcile science and theology. Erasmus is no less clear that the law of nature inspires us with at least the elements of truth and morality, and he does not hesitate to write “Nonne quod naturæ ratio dictat, idem et sacra Lex jubet.”

To the Nominalist theology the intellect comes first: to Erasmus this place is reserved for natural reason. The law of nature and the law of grace were the same in kind: the day was to come when Erasmus saw how they differed in degree. In the meantime he perceives that Judaism has its appointed task to fulfil in teaching men the distinction between good and evil, between commands and prohibitions. The Law created an elaborate discipline for the purpose of fighting sin, constraining men to use their powers. The code given to Moses, though it commanded and threatened men, contained the germ of progress, for did it not foreshadow the Messiah? The Prophets and the Psalmists foretold Him. The Law of Works, which with Erasmus always means the observance ordered by Moses, prepares the way for the Law of Faith: it is simply a stage in the long journey which was one day to lead men to Christ Himself. To Erasmus there is no antithesis, save an historical one, between Law and Faith.1 To him the opposition between Law and Faith is definitely doctrinal. The Law has not been abolished: the Gospel transforms it and completes its work. Like Pico and Reuchlin, Erasmus looked around history and saw everywhere the principle of continuity. He wishes to reform the Schoolmen; he does not want to destroy them. To him as to Ficino, Christianity is in the last stage of its development. The Jew contributed his contemplative genius, the Greek his philosophical genius, the Roman his political genius. There was not any contradiction between Christianity and antiquity. The wisdom of Greek and Roman, combined with the works of the Law, finds a natural meeting place in the Gospel. Petrarch regards Cicero as his father, Virgil as his breviary. To Erasmus they are valuable because they are animæ naturaliter Christianæ. There is not only continuity, there is also unity, which is realized in the Incarnation. Truth is contained in texts: it is also embodied in Him Who is the Life of men. In fact Erasmus is quite clear there has been one divine event towards which the whole world has moved. His reading of the records of the past obliges him to look on man as a worker with God. His historical mind obliges him to see the bearing of the past on the present. Unlike the Schoolmen, Descartes, and the Positivist system of the nineteenth century, he does not trust to reason working on experience for a scheme of thought.

The facts of life told the scholar plainly that there was duality in the soul of man, that evil and good were continually striving for the mastery. For him there was—and there could be—no dualism in his outlook on life. Knowledge was destined to grow from more to more, and similarly there was to be more reverence within us. Mind and soul were to be in accord, making a complete unity: a synthesis, not a separation, is the aim of his method. He knows how large a share faith takes in Christian life: he also knows how large a share love takes. As there is no tree without root, so there is no faith without fruit. “The sap,” he holds, “that Christ infuses in us must reveal itself by flowers.” That is, there is no opposition between faith and works, for the one means the other. Justification to Erasmus is justification by faith, which issues in holiness of life: a justification, however, isolated from works is a conception alien to his whole tone of thought. “It is not only he who speaks of justice is just, but he who practises it in his life and habits.”

As Erasmus reconciles faith and works, so he reconciles nature and grace. We are free before grace for we can accept it or reject it, though our virtues are the work of God. Grace is offered to us, and by our free will we receive it. If we practise good works for the glory of God, God will requite us. His solution is plainly Austinian. “Those who are the farthest from Pelagius attribute the utmost to grace, almost nothing to free will, without, however, suppressing it; they deny that man can will good without a particular grace, that he can take it in hand, make progress, and accomplish it completely without the essential and continual help of His grace. Their view seems right to me.” Man, however, must co-operate with God. The gift of grace is God’s, but man’s share is the reception of it. Man is not condemned save by his own fault. The will of man remains in the last resort incorporating itself with the Divine action: it is a reality, not a sheer illusion, making for liberty, not for serfdom. It realizes the One in the Many. “Where there is no unity,” Erasmus is persuaded, “there is no Church.”1 For him Christ forms the joining force, making all men realize their oneness. The more we know about Him the more we feel our union with His spirit, and every Christian ought therefore to read his Bible. True some may misuse their reading, nevertheless “must we chase the bee from the flowers because now and then a spider appears on them?” There are, Erasmus admits, in the sacred record obscurities of words and of things. The Bible did not fall from Heaven like the image of Diana at Ephesus: its different books show plainly the traces of the different circumstances and stages of culture in which they had their origin. The historical sense of Erasmus is awakened, and he sees differences and developments of doctrine both in the Old Testament and the New. In point of fact the Bible is not primarily a revelation of supernatural knowledge at all: it is the revelation of God Himself working in history for the redemption of mankind, progressing from Genesis to Moses, from Moses to the Prophets, from the Prophets to Christ, and beyond Him. The comparative point of view appears, for example, in the remark that St. Paul wrote for the Jews who opposed “the legal rules of Mosaic law in the Gospel.… It is probable that he would have spoken quite differently had he lived in our age.” Growth of doctrine began with St. Paul, continues in the Fathers, and Doctors follow in their train. One passage, however, shows his distress at the progress of unbelief.

Truth has changed, has developed through the ages. God inspired holy men of old, and His influence is at work in His Church. Inspiration is not now, however, a sufficient criterion of truth, for individuals claim it, interpreting the Bible in many different ways. The test of conscience, however enlightened by the Spirit, is a subjective one. Erasmus requires an objective one, and it is at hand in his method. Paul, Irenæus, Cyprian, Origen, Jerome, Ambrose, Chrysostom, Gregory the Great, Thomas Aquinas—all contribute their share to grasping the mind of God, Their authority is not meant, however, to crush freedom of thought. Truth is not in one of them: it is in what is common to all of them. Their agreements, not their disagreements, are vital, and in their joint consent Erasmus finds the firm basis of our action, which in time becomes general belief. The Renaissance to him was not a pure reaction against the Middle Ages; it was rather a stage in the evolution of a long process. He, however, discards the dry form of the syllogism in favour of the lively form of exposition: he substitutes analysis in place of the divisions and subdivisions of the schoolmen. In his Ratio … perveniendi ad veram theologiam he lays down plain exegetical rules. He points out the necessity of classifying passages from the Bible, e.g. those received by all, those contested, and those characterized as apocryphal. Much as he admires the synoptists, his warmest regard is reserved for the fourth Gospel.

Erasmus has a reverential attitude to the past: it has handed down truth to the present. He is just as willing as the Schoolmen to receive the teaching of the Church. Unlike the preceding generation, he exhibits no interest in such matters as the superiority of the Pope to a General Council, and vice versa. He is well aware that it is the practice which produces the theory, and not the theory the practice. The prehistoric savage knew nothing of the laws of gravitation when he launched the first canoe; and men conversed with one another ages before the need was felt for formulating the laws of language. It is the practice, then, which produces the theory, though the theory generally reacts on the practice which produced it. Erasmus saw that there is a certain intellectual element in religion from the very first: there are a few essentials of knowledge without which no man can become or be a Christian. But as for the great mass of doctrine, it comes second both in point of time and importance: the order is still that of the Master, “If any man will do His will he shall know of the doctrine.” Erasmus is quite clear that it is not “dogma which gives birth to faith, but faith gives birth to dogma.” Nevertheless, with Pico della Mirandola and Lefèvre d’Étaples he firmly believes—and nothing ever shook this conviction—that the Church has the right to define dogma, to authorize its definitions, and to order the permanent recital of the Apostles’ Creed. “The Church,” he is amply convinced, “never goes wrong in whatever pertains to salvation.… I believe with the utmost implicit confidence what I read in the Bible and the Apostles’ Creed, and I seek nothing beyond that.”

“Humorous people there are,” Erasmus quietly points out, “who believe in the infallibility of the Pope on condition that they can submit it to their own infallibility.” In the Colloquies he maintains that “what comes from the authority of a General Council is a celestial oracle, and it has a weight, if not equal to that of the Gospels, at least equivalent.” He holds that all the laws of the popes oblige, that no one can abrogate what the pontiff decrees, that St. Peter has received authority to establish new laws, that St. Paul and the other Apostles have in the Churches the places assigned to them by St. Peter or Christ, that the successors of St. Peter exercise the same power as St. Peter himself. It is true that they can abuse their power, that they can establish unjust or evil laws, irreconcilable with the inward liberty of the Spirit. What does it matter? “The liberty of a Christian is,” according to the Colloquies, “not to be able to do what he wishes, but to be always ready to do, in the fervour of the Spirit, with a light and contented heart, what he is ordered, rather as a son than as a slave.” If the Renaissance tended towards individualism, certainly Erasmus limited this individualism. His negative work, his criticisms of the corrupt state of religion, prepared the way for the Reformation. His positive work is different: it is a distinction sometimes overlooked. In spite of unreasonable commands, the bishop remains a father in God: he is not a tyrant. The humanist takes trouble to emphasize the fact that Jesus said “Feed my sheep”: He did not say thy sheep, but mine. “Pastor es, non dominus,” so he teaches in his Ratio … perveniendi ad veram theologiam.

There is, then, an obvious difference between temporal and ecclesiastical authority: the latter is essentially spiritual, and therefore concerned with spiritual matters. Matters not dealing with faith are open to criticism, e.g. the case of the Forged Decretals. The secular authority commands the body: the ecclesiastical appeals to the soul, the conscience. When the Church states the way of salvation she is discharging her manifest duty. She exceeds her functions when she imposes annates and tithes, places herself above princes, makes peace or war, and fulminates anathemas on behalf of her worldly interests. The pride of theologians is largely responsible for the use of force. The Church was built on love, and by love she maintained herself. She was not built on force, and by force she ought not to maintain herself. Does truth grow through the employment of sudden decrees, of condemnations, of pains and penalties? We terrify and threaten, Erasmus perceives: we constrain, we do not teach; we drag men by force, we do not lead them. The outcome “is that the religion of Christ which was everywhere flourishing is everywhere declining.”

The scholar studies the method of St. Paul. “If he speaks to the Athenians, he does not present himself to them as a censor who accuses them, but as a stranger who seeks instruction. Does he write to the Romans? He recommends them not to reject, but to welcome the feeble in faith, to receive them as Christ has received them. Does he write to the Corinthians? He advises them to seek what is useful to their brethren, not to themselves. Does he write to the Galatians? He does not blame them for having preferred a pseudo-apostle to him, but writes as a mother who is distressed and disquieted by the idleness of her child. Has this mildness been a danger? Has it not been a force and a power on behalf of truth? “This mildness has renewed the world, has done what no harshness could do.”

About 1489 Erasmus told Cornelius Gerard that by their science and their life Jerome and Austin stood at the head of the Church. In his Ratio … perveniendi ad veram theologiam he particularly eulogizes the De Doctrina christiana of St. Austin, and, like most other humanists, e.g. Lefèvre d’Étaples, places the Celestial Hierarchy of Dionysius the Areopagite near it, though he disbelieves in its authenticity. In 1520 he published his edition of Cyprian: in 1522 he edited Hilary and the Commentary of Arnobius on the Psalms. In the preface to his edition of Hilary he takes occasion to remark that the intellectual life of Catholicism is not bound up with either Aquinas or Scotus. In 1525 he translated treatises of Chrysostom. In 1527 appeared the works of Ambrose, in 1528 those of Irenæus; in 1529 a treatise of Lactantius, and during these very years his ceaseless activity revises and annotates an edition of Austin. The two Fathers who absorbed his thoughts were Jerome and Origen, especially the former. In 1512 and 1516 he published Jerome’s Letters and some of his treatises, and the letters of Erasmus himself make it plain that from 1500 he was contemplating an edition of Jerome’s works. In 1521, and from 1524 to 1526 he occupied himself with this Father. With a pang Erasmus recalled that an angel had chastised Jerome for having read Cicero too often. Speedily he comforts himself with the thought that St. Paul spoke at the Areopagus with the insight of an Athenian. It is a thousand pities that Jerome held such a view: still, the Renaissance scholar felt the theologian simply must know his Homer and Virgil, his Sophocles and Theocritus, and his Cicero. Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle—they are all precursors of Christ. “When I read certain passages of these great men,” Erasmus confesses, “I can scarcely avoid saying: Holy Socrates, pray for us.” In Cicero he feels a divine afflatus. “I cannot,” he said, “read his books on Old Age, Friendship, and Duties without stopping and kissing the manuscript.… He is inspired.” Knowledge unites man more closely to religion, for Christ is the crown of human progress.

In 1532 Erasmus published his edition of Basil, and in the last year of his life he was hard at work on fragments of Origen. He had long been attached to the seminal mind of this last Father. In 1518 he told Johann Eck that a page of Origen pleased him more than ten of Austin. Closely as he studied the Fathers, he makes his reserves. “Homines errant,” he remarks, “quædam ignorabunt … nonnulla dederunt … vincendis hereticis.” Here is the record of the days and nights of the scholar spent in finding manuscripts, collating them, penetrating the precise meaning of words, establishing the exact accuracy of facts. Truly he could say “Exegi monumentum.” The object is to enrich Christian thought by the Renaissance, and, unlike the Italians, to accomplish the purification of the Renaissance by Christian thought. That is, Erasmus is more than a mere brain because his is a beautiful soul, and one naturally Christian. His editions embody not only an encyclopædia of knowledge, but also a Christian ideal of life. Antiquity is his life because it embodies life. His object is not the culture of man: it is a cult for man. For the resurrection of Antiquity meant the resurrection of Christianity. Μηδὲν ἅγαν, “Nothing in excess,” was as characteristic of Erasmian as of Hellenic wisdom. It was the work of Erasmus to reconcile faith and reason, authority and discovery, obedience and inquiry.

Erasmus’s patristic work was the work of a lifetime. As he told the Chapter of Metz, “I have laboured either to bring to the light of day very ancient authors, or to correct those whose text is corrupt.” What has the result been? Improved texts, exact translations, and learned commentaries have appeared, and with them the idea that mediæval thought is not sufficient. Men must go behind the schoolmen to the sources, they must read Greek and Hebrew for themselves, and see, not what the authority of the Church tells them is in the Bible, but what is actually in it. Rightly he terms his edition of the New Testament Novum Instrumentum: his editions of the Fathers were Nova Instrumenta. All inaugurated a method in thought of the most far-reaching significance. This method, as Pitt said of Butler’s Analogy, raised as many problems as it solved. A synthesis as well as his method was an urgent need. Meanwhile history, philology and theology in particular benefited from the discoveries of Erasmus: all leaning was to benefit by his determination to be content with nothing less than the sources themselves. Erasmus, like Pico della Mirandola, was resolved that nothing was to be taken at second hand. A similar conception is worked out in Guillaume Budé’s remarkable book, De Studio, and in the preface to Lefèvre d’Étaples’ Libri Logicorum.

The schoolmen explored the mystery of being of God as it were in vacuo: Erasmus threw out the great thought that the nature of God is best understood in the Incarnation. The reading of the Fathers obliges men to note the difference of their views on many matters on which the schoolmen needlessly dogmatized. It is likely that the practice of Confession originates in the “secret consultation” of the faithful with their pastors. Why then make it an article of the faith as Peter Lombard does? If there are errors of detail in the sacred record, does it not show the danger of rigid theories of inspiration? If, as his beloved Jerome holds, St. Paul did not write the Epistle to the Hebrews, if there are doubts on the verses of the Three Witnesses in the First Epistle of St. John, if he did not, according to the Greeks, write the Apocalypse, if it is doubtful that St. Peter wrote the second Epistle attributed to him, or if St. James wrote his Epistle, or if St. John wrote two of his Epistles, is the text beyond criticism? If it is true that the Apostles and Evangelists spoke the common tongue to the people, why cannot the faithful read the Bible in the language of their country? Moreover, he casts doubts on the Pseudo-Dionysius, and on the greater part of the writings attributed to St. Clement. He is not at all convinced that Papias is an historical character, though he is quite sure of the historicity of the Acts of the Apostles.

Freedom from rigid definition is the Erasmian ideal. Dogma there is and must be. There is no need to add fresh articles to the Creed. The Church says Deus homo: St. Anselm asks, Cur Deus homo? All that St. Anselm says is an approach to truth: no man, however, need take it as de fide. Thinkers propose, the Church imposes. Thinkers seek, the Church finds. They explain forms of truth: the Church crystallizes them into dogma. Erasmus felt with Montaigne that it is putting a high value on the opinions of a writer to burn men who do not see eye to eye with him. For knowledge, if found accurate, he had nothing but respect. Geography, history and philology—he looked askance at philosophy—were all of priceless worth to the theologian. “If, thanks to the works of history,” he writes, “we know not only the situation of the peoples among whom the recorded events happen, to whom the Apostles wrote, and also their origin, their manners, their institutions their genius, what light—let us say better—what life it puts into the study of the sacred texts!” The historic sense of the age is awake.

Controversy Erasmus disliked even when it served the cause of truth. War he disliked much more intensely, for he felt that it tended to harden men’s views about other men and the causes on whose behalf they fought. Studies, he tells Servatius, are cold, but wars are hot. In those days of perpetual war it required no little courage to plead the cause of peace before princes. In 1504 he sketched for the benefit of the Archduke Philip the Fair a picture of the model prince, whose main duty was to preserve peace, and in 1511 the Moriæ Encomium inculcated the same precept. In 1514 he wrote a letter to one of his patrons, the brother of the Bishop of Cambrai, on the many iniquities of war, and neither Penn nor Barclay could add anything to the weight of the reasoning employed. In 1515, in a new edition of the Adagia and the Institutio Principis Christiani he discussed this problem. In 1516 he was appointed Councillor to Philip’s son, Charles, who at the age of sixteen had become King of Spain, and in the Institutio he urged the prince’s duty to maintain peace. In 1517 he met the new Bishop of Utrecht, Philip of Burgundy, with the Querela Pacis undique gentium ejectæ profligatæque, the Complaint of Peace cast forth from all lands. He complains that “school contends with school, and, as though the nature of truth varied in different places, there are some doctrines which never cross the sea, the Alps, or the Rhine; nay, in the same university the logician is at war with the rhetorician, the lawyer with the divine. And still further, even in the same profession, the Scotist fights with the Thomist, the Nominalist with the Realist, the Platonist with the Peripatetic, so that they cannot agree even in the most minute particular, and often they will fight most desperately for a mere straw, until, in the heat of the discussion, they proceed from arguments to abuse, and from abuse to blows, and, if the affair is not settled with daggers and lances, they stab one another with pens dipped in poison, tear each other in pieces on paper, and brandish against one another’s fame tongues armed with death. But none revolted me more than the monks, among whom there are as many factions as there are societies, while Dominicans dispute with Franciscans, Benedictines with the followers of St. Bernard; there are so many names, dresses, ceremonies, studiously diverse, so as to exclude all possibility of agreement, while each other is in love with itself, but condemns and hates every other. And yet nothing can be more utterly at variance with Christianity, whose founder is emphatically called the Prince of Peace.” In 1522 he informs Carondelet that “the sum of our religion is peace and concord.” The matters of the Gospel must be treated in the spirit of the Gospel. Many humanists desired peace and goodwill among men because it secured their own peace. Erasmus, on the contrary, loved peace and ensued it for its own sake. Like St. Austin, Dante, and Marsilius he ranks it as the highest early good.








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