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

ORTHODOX Germany watched the changes in the relationship of Church and State with growing suspicion. After the decisive victory the Emperor gained over Francis I at the battle of Pavia, 1525, the Treaty of Madrid was signed, 1526, binding the two monarchs to suppress Lutheranism in Germany. On March 23, 1526, Charles admonished certain princes and rulers of the empire to employ their influence with their neighbours for the eradication of heretical doctrines. He commended the anti-Lutheran league, formed by Duke George of Saxony, Duke Henry of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, and the Electors of Brandenburg and Mayence. The Emperor announced that after his return from Rome he would resort to every measure for the extirpation of heresy. Inevitably league was met by league. Protestant princes like John of Saxony, Philip of Hesse, Dukes Otto, Ernest and Francis of Brunswick-Lüneburg, and the Count of Mansfield joined in an alliance to defend the evangelical party. Cities like Magdeburg and Nürnberg supported them. The opposing bodies met at the Diet of Spires, June 1526. According to Spalatin it was the boldest and freest ever held. In the absence of Charles, who was fighting the Pope, Ferdinand presided. Acting on his brother’s instructions, he demanded the enforcement of the Edict of Worms and a decree of the Diet, forbidding all innovations in worship and doctrine. If those two imperial demands were complied with, he promised that the Emperor would induce the Pope to call a General Council for the settlement of the religious problems. The delegate from the cities pointed out that it was impossible to secure the observance of the Edict of Worms. The committee of princes numbered among its members the Bishops of Würzburg, Strassburg, Freisingen and Georg Truchess for the spiritual; the Princes of Hesse, the Palatinate, and Baden, and the Count of Solms for the temporal. The remarkable report they issued was naturally a compromise, but a compromise very largely favourable to the reforming side. The Diet, in effect, decreed that the Word of God should be preached without disturbance; that indemnity should be granted for past offences against the Diet of Worms, and that until the meeting of a General Council each State should “so live, rule and bear itself as it thought it could answer to God and the Emperor.”

At the Diet of Nürnberg in 1523 the Estates passed resolutions which received imperial approval. These, however, had not been enforced, especially the orders against “revolutionary writing and poetizing, and against the printing, selling, and hawking of calumnious literature and other forbidden books.” The representatives of the towns on August 1 handed in their gravamina against the clergy. As usual, finance formed its main burden. The laity resented the fees for religious services such as baptism and marriage, death taxes, extreme unction, burial, purchase of candles, the endowment of anniversaries and similar services for the dead, charges in connexion with relieving souls from purgatory, indulgences, services, compulsory tithing, rents, surplice fees, voluntary contributions demanded at intervals, the general custom of begging not only by the friars but also by the monks and nuns, and the indebtedness of many to ecclesiastical foundations which, in spite of the canon law, charged interest. They proceeded to demand the gradual abolition of the mendicant friars, of monasteries and convents, and of the celibacy of the clergy. They also desired that in view of past abuses the secular authorities should have power to remove unfit pastors and preachers, that the management and revenues of hospitals should be placed in lay and not in clerical hands. Some pleaded that with regard to ceremonies each individual was to be at liberty to act until a free, Christian, impartial Council met. In the meantime preaching was to be unhindered unless it tended to stir up sedition. Some delegates proposed, after the tradition of Caliph Omar, the burning of all other books in order that the Gospel and the Gospel only should be preached; but this proposal was defeated.

That these demands were gradually increased is due to the open help the delegates were receiving from the strife between the Emperor and the Pope, the advance of the Turks, and from the secret help they were no less certainly receiving from Francis I.

The concentration of Clement VII in Italian politics was so great that Lutheranism escaped his sight. The German papal briefs steadily diminished, and from 1526–1529 the relations between Germany and the Roman Curia ceased at the very time when the cause of reform was steadily advancing. Sulieman I, the Diet heard, was encamping in Hungary with an army of 200,000 men, and by the battle of Mohacz, 1526, won the greater part of that country. Francis I had been plotting the expulsion of the Hapsburgs from the imperial throne. One of his methods was the election of a King of the Romans, who should, in conjunction with the other electors, conclude an alliance with France. The Turk in the east and the French in the west worked harmoniously together. Henry VIII was one day to prove a strange Defender of the Faith, but no less strange defenders of Protestantism are Sulieman I, the Mohammedan, and Francis I, the eldest son of the Church. In spite of the menace in the plains of Hungary, the delegates persisted in their refusal to ratify the assistance promised to Charles V “until the towns had been reassured with regard to the holy faith, and the oppression of the clergy removed from them.” Under these circumstances the Archduke Ferdinand gave his assent to an ordinance of the Diet which in effect allowed the preachers of the Evangel to deliver their message. Just five years before Luther had been put to the ban of the empire. Just six years before he had been excommunicated by the Church. Both had combined to destroy him. Now in effect he had destroyed them. The Protestant State Churches had acquired a foundation for their existence. The toleration granted by the religious peace of Augsburg, 1555, was clearly outlined. Such a suspensive period of governmental activity as that laid down in the clause that each ruler should conduct himself so as to be able to defend his course before God and the Emperor meant a practical liberty for the new body to develop. The Protestant States and cities rightly interpreted the decision of the Diet as in their favour. Within three years almost the whole of north Germany, except Brandenburg, Ducal Saxony and Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, became adherents of the banned and excommunicated Luther. It was a triumph for the reformer: it was no less a triumph for the territorial prince. At the Diet of Worms a definite limit of time had been imposed on the suspension, whereas now it was treated as still open, when as a matter of fact it had been settled. Such a plan suited Luther, it suited Charles—he never could have brought himself to sign a formal recognition of the principle of toleration—and it suited Germany. Nondum was the motto the Emperor, or rather the Spanish king, inscribed on his shield, and it was prophetic of his deliberate and hesitating career. Legal the plan of toleration was not: practical it eminently was. It did not authorize the establishment of the principle Cujus regio, ejus religio in law, yet it allowed such a growth that less than thirty years later this principle was admitted.

The reference to a General Council ought to have pleased Erasmus: here was a triumph for his favourite idea. But for some time he had been in a state of amazement at the violence with which Luther had treated his justification of the freedom of the will. To Reginald Pole he expressed his astonishment at this outburst of rage. Herein he did not exhibit his usual perspicacity. To Luther the attack was waged on the most vital point of his whole theology: if man possessed free will, where was the certainty of his message? Granted that he was the divinely inspired messenger of God, then he saw the justification of his system. The very foundations of his theological scheme were now mined, and he expressed his horror of the miner in no measured terms. To the faculty of Paris Erasmus confessed his dismay, and he wrote to John a Lasco and Francis Sylvius that he felt like the gladiators obliged to fight in the arena with the tigers and the lions. He appealed to the Elector of Saxony, protesting loudly against the violence of the De Servo Arbitrio. In his turn the Elector appealed to Luther, who begged him to resist the “Viper.” The Elector therefore refused to interfere in a purely theological quarrel, failing to perceive that the sources of the quarrel went to the very root of the matter.

Taking the question into his own hands, Erasmus wrote a stern letter to Luther, breathing forth the indignation which fills the first part of the Hyperaspistes. Much is made of the storm in which both religion and humanism are about to be swallowed up. Once he had been friendly to the Reformation: the wonderful success of Luther was then not unjustified. To-day the frightful excesses of his partisans had ruined the noble cause of the Gospel. Those who cry out that they must die a thousand deaths for the Gospel are the men whose lives are alienating the majority of men. Germany is sacked by them, by their mistakes letters are falling into discredit: hateful controversies animate the minds of men and the old ignorance is returning. Even the old unsupportable tyranny of the monks is making a reappearance. Far from being aggressive to Luther, his book displayed an almost excessive moderation. To this calmness Luther responds by insults which migh twell have come from a drunkard. Erasmus hears that he writes in Latin in order that the people might have no part in the discussion, whereas Luther translates his work into German. It is to the ordinary ignorant people he addresses himself, it is before the public of smiths, curriers, peasants, he indites his calumnies; and these are the sort of people favourable to Luther, but not knowing Erasmus, tasting the outrages of the former but not understanding the replies of the latter. Luther threw some doubt on the absolute disinterestedness of Erasmus. The scholar returns the accusation. Luther must have more importance than he would have had if he had not raised all this trouble. As for his love of glory he had obtained all the satisfaction he desires, seeing he is to-day a true tyrant: he has satellites, supporters, collaborators, translators to his orders. Nothing is lacking save the diadem. Erasmus gives the details as to these collaborators. In spite of abuse, in spite of the poisoned honey of flattery, Erasmus remains unmoved. The friend of peace, he will remain faithful to Catholicism while waiting for the more perfect constitution of the Church.

Erasmus is not hopeless. In 1526 he has been able to write to J. Henckel, secretary to the Queen of Hungary, “what the power, what the attraction of the Evangel is, the times show us plainly. In the name of the Evangel, and in that alone, we see the whole world roused from its lethargy and stripped of its past.”

In the Paraphrases Erasmus showed himself aware that there were tendencies to scepticism at work, and in it he defended the immortality of the soul. Since 1524 he detected attacks on this doctrine and on the doctrine of die Providential government of the world. In 1527 he told Vergera that forms of “Ciceronianism” were at bottom a movement to freedom of thought. A certain type of man doubts everything, except himself. Erasmus perceives that the spirit of rationalism is abroad. In order, however, to conquer it he will not, like Luther, sacrifice both reason and liberty. He will not oppose nature and grace: he will seek a victory in their reconciliation. Erasmus saw signs that Pomponazzi’s sceptical attitude to the immortality of the soul was influencing men in a growing degree. When they doubted his immortality they proceeded to wonder if God guided the destinies of the world. In a pregnant paragraph F. W. H. Myers tells us that when he was walking one night with George Eliot in the Fellows’ Garden, Trinity College, Cambridge, “she, stirred somewhat beyond her wont, and taking as her text the three words which have been used so often as the inspiring trumpet-calls of men—the words, God, Immortality, Duty—pronounced with terrible earnestness, how inconceivable was the first, how unbelievable the second, and yet how peremptory and absolute the third.” Men were beginning to realize how hard it was to believe in immortality, and with this semi-realization, in spite of George Eliot’s dictum, they were beginning to find duty neither peremptory nor absolute. Erasmus was not perhaps so passionately attached to the dogma of the immortality of the soul as Tennyson, nevertheless it was a dogma he had long defended. In his Paraphrases on St. Luke he had offered a vigorous defence of this doctrine. The attacks of Dolet on the Enchiridion and the Paraphrases do not change his determination to pursue the synthesis between nature and grace. Dolet was a devoted humanist in whose humanism there is nothing Christian. He believes neither in love nor morality. His attitude to death is simply Stoic resignation. From Pomponazzi he has learnt arguments against the immortality of the soul, and his outlook resembles George Eliot’s, save that her “choir invisible” enabled others to lead lives made better by their presence, while he believed that immortality was the chance of one’s books being handed down to posterity.

Everything in the universe, Erasmus argues in his Hyperaspistes, is a mixture of good and evil, of truth and error. How can man escape from this law? It explains life: the contrariety of our longings, the difference between creed and conduct. It is the foundation of our theories and our methods of education. If we are born equally intelligent and good, what are the origins of ignorance and evil? If we are born equally bad, what an enigma are our leanings to good and our fitness for progress? And what a condition would be ours: it would be worse than that of the brute beast who is at least capable of gratitude, of kindness and of power. In the Diatribe he believes in stages in the progress of the race, and in Hyperaspistes he sets forth the same inspiring view. Plato teaches the creation of the world and the immortality of the soul. Philosophers discover that God was spirit, and sovereign power, present everywhere and circumscribed nowhere. The law of nature imposes a standard of duty; our will has as good an ideal held up before it. Human wisdom separates honour from utility, proclaims the excellence of devotion, and preaches such homely virtues as shame and moderation, generosity and justice. Such ideas are the very ones we find in the Decalogue. Indeed he had long identified the law of nature and the law of Moses. Apart from grace, man has given practical proofs that he recognized virtue by the light of nature. Antiquity had its monsters, an Alcibiades or a Tiberius. It had, however, an Aristides and a Socrates, a Decius and a Cato. True, it has known remorse; it has also known beneficence, tasted the sweetness of forgiveness and the heroism of sacrifice. Was this nobility of great souls only pride and delusion?

The law of nature and the law of grace are the same in kind, though not in degree. This same law enabled the flower of the classical world to be heroes and sages. They were, however, on the mountain-top of humanism, where they could not notice the myriads of plants, vegetables in the valley. “Man,” such is the conclusion, “by himself can will something good: he cannot effectively will the good which leads him to happiness.” The law of Moses, with its detailed rites and ceremonies, gave men a framework. True, it was external, nevertheless it “accustomed the rebellious people to Divine commands and led them, as it were by the hand, to the perception of spiritual matters.” As in the Diatribe, he dwells on the value of the general consent of the Fathers. Their consent creates agreement among the bishops and the faithful, becoming a reasoned belief, a general belief, which is almost a revelation.

George of Saxony was pleased with the Hyperaspistes. Melanchthon was equally displeased with it. He was well aware, he told Camerarius, that the De Servo Arbitrio would call forth a response in which abuse would take the place of argument. He indeed expressed in this letter his fears that the violence of his friend Luther was continually increasing. To Gelenius he wrote that now was consummated the rupture of humanism and the Reformation, the two movements he desired to see bound in the bonds of the closest intimacy. It was high time the bickering ceased. Melanchthon decided to keep quiet and he implored Luther to follow this course, seeing that a response was useless.

To Lefèvre and to Simon Pistorius Erasmus confides his hopes and fears. To the first he writes: “We see with what kind of literature the Lutherans fill the world. Nor are those documents a whit more sane which are written on the other side by certain theologians. From the collision of such books, what else arises except conflagration? The same result happens from the meetings and speeches of both parties: so they wildly abuse one another and the rope of contention is strained. If the factious members are removed from the schools and are succeeded by those who, on the contrary, teach approved and necessary literature, nothing will be accomplished. There is no end of disputing. The promoters of the disapproved party would have to be removed: and specially some ringleaders; and in their place decent men would have to be elected, who would have nothing to do with the dogma of contentions, but who would only hand down such teaching as would without controversy make for piety and good morals. The schools and professorships of languages would be entrusted to those who, free from all party spirit, would teach things useful to the boys. But at present certain persons, while they are carried away by uncontrollable hatred against Luther, aim at the destruction both of the best literature and the students of the same, thrusting into the camp of Luther those whom they ought to have attracted. Meantime they vent their rage on innocent victims under the name of piety. Against the promoters of sedition we ought rightly to vent our rage, but only to such a degree that, as far as is possible, no innocent persons are injured, no sensible persons alienated, and the multitude spared. And perhaps it would be better to obtain this from the states where this groundwork has become strong: viz. that each party has its own place and that each is left to reckon with its conscience until time brings forth some opportunity of agreement. Meantime let severe punishment be meted out to those who attempt sedition. Meantime let us ourselves immediately correct certain matters from which this evil springs, and let the other matters be referred to a General Council. But of these at another time more fully, or rather face to face, if I shall see that the matter meets with your approval. Meantime I beg this of you by our friendship, that you may not proceed to irritate against us those hornets unless you wish Erasmus extinguished.”

The critical genius of the writer is evident in his letter: the constructive genius is absent. He was far too reluctant to mend for fear of marring. He failed to understand, as Luther did, the gravity of the times in which he lived. Erasmus himself declared that while he was at work a certain demon seemed to take possession of him, and to carry him on without his will. His pen, as it were, dictated statesmanlike conceptions which he was incapable of carrying out. Always ailing, he did not possess the rude health which normally accompanies vigorous leadership. Men no longer required a scholar and a critic: they required a leader, a visionary. Power he possessed in no scanty measure, but he under-estimated his opportunities for its exercise. Men asked for bread and received a stone. All his life Luther believed what he wished to believe; it was one great source of his strength. It made him prompt, fearless, decisive, a daring guide in extremity. What constructive work could be expected from one who reckoned authority at so high a rate as the humanist? Cogito, ergo sum—“I think, therefore I am”—believed Descartes. “I think because I am not,” Erasmus acted. He was far-sighted though not clear-sighted, and the times then demanded clearness of vision. Of Fabius the Romans said, “One man by dilatory tactics restored our prosperity.” Of Erasmus the Germans could say, “One man by dilatory tactics ruined our prosperity.” Erasmus knew what he wanted, and his powers in working for it were almost unlimited. He did not, however, possess that great quality of his rival—instinctive sympathy for the condition under which his task has to be achieved. He was endowed with greater power for influencing individuals than managing a party such as Luther created. He, like Halifax, possessed the enviable gift of anticipating the judgment of succeeding ages, yet he, unlike Halifax, failed to understand his own.

Simon Pistorius was as devoted a Churchman and a classicist as Erasmus himself. He adhered to the dogmas of the Church as warmly as he adhered to the writers of antiquity. Erasmus tells him, “Moreover as to your pleading my case before the Emperor, so as to ascertain that I never willingly departed from the prescribed teachings of the Church, I do not quite understand, my Pistorius, what he means, I who wittingly or unwittingly never turned aside from the accepted doctrines of the Church. But we must distinguish the constitutions of the Church—some are of the general councils, some are from the rescripts, some are peculiar to certain bishops, some are of the Roman pontiff, but like the plebiscites which are constitutions in secret. Again of the decrees of the councils, some are for all time, some are temporal, given for a particular occasion.… And to confess partly what is the fact: as this fatal tumult was increasing, I was plainly of opinion that, when some constitutions were changed, this disturbance might be lulled into some degree of tranquillity. Meantime, I say nothing about the vices which under the pretext of religion have crept into the Church and have so far prevailed that they have almost extinguished any spark of evangelical vigour. All persons do not understand what this means. The princes act rightly when they make provision that there be no relaxation of the bonds that bind the public fabric. This is indeed a matter of conscience. Now when I see that neither party is willing to make any concessions to the other, the one burden of my prayer is that God may grant a happy issue: for I do not see who else can. Many think that by punishments and laws this evil can be lulled to rest, but only for a time: and even if it can be calmed for ever, there will not cease to be silent murmurings and judgments of conscience.

“Nor would the authority of the Church be weakened if some matters were changed by the leaders of the Church for strong reasons—a thing which has already been repeatedly done by our ancestors.… I suspect that this suggestion has been thrown out by some Lutherans with this object, that if I would advise what suited them, they might have me as their subservient tool; but if not, I might kindle against myself the bitter hatred of this state. For with all their might some were contending for this, that all things might be done here which we see being done at Zürich: a perpetual seal of silence is pledged. So I have retained a plan in consideration of the present position of the state, for it is due to the republic alone that I should not inaugurate a tragedy here, dangerous not only to myself, nor surrender the authority of the Church to the arbitration of any chance persons. And yet his plan, however temperate, so pleased the Consul that he arranges three months before—not intending to make it public unless some person of the ecclesiastical party had demanded it. Certainly by that plan no innovation is made here except that all these things have been carried out more moderately than they began.… As to what I wrote, that neither party seems to me to be sober-minded, the Church is not attacked, but certain persons who thrust more upon us than is necessary to believe. This is said against certain theologians and monks, not against the Church. The Transalpines wish us to confess that the Roman pontiff alone is more powerful than all the Churches and the Christian people. The Cisalpines hold certain articles, some of which I do not like to defend, and yet, unless I did so, they would raise their voices (against me). Hence I did not say that I was on neither side, but that I was pledged to neither side. A person who is pledged is subservient in all things. Not only must he be subservient to views, but even to customs and dispositions which I find to be very corrupt in some who wish with much loud talk to do the business of the Church.

“Concerning the Lutheran books that ought not henceforth to be altogether rejected, this seems to be a fitting time considering the state of this republic. If the Church would permit the use of the Sacrament under each form I do not see ever so little disadvantage, for the Bohemian Church allowed it formerly. Nor yet do I approve of any one exciting disturbance on this account among a Christian people. I am not in favour of allowing priests to marry, nor would I relax the vows of the monks, unless that is done with the sanction of the Pontiff to the edifying of the Church, not to its destruction. I think it inhuman to constrain youths or girls to such an extent, and righteous to free from blame the captives. It would be in the highest degree desirable that priests or monks should cherish chastity and a godlike life. But in our present degenerate state the lesser evil should perhaps be accepted. If this opinion does not please those set over the Church, let it be considered a fancy. As to what you write about the impious licence of some, no man has been more inclined to such things by me, but I have even restrained many. I have fears of paganism, I see Judaism has already got hold everywhere. If all of us, clerical and lay, great and small, would turn with sincere hearts to Christ the founder of our faith, confessing each one his faults, and would with one accord in prayer implore His mercy, in a short time we should see a happy issue out of all this disturbance. Now while most persons are intent on their private advantage, they do not even properly take counsel for the public weal. As to the poor opinion that you have of Greek literature because of one or two points detected, this is quite out of keeping with your prudence and the candour of your disposition. You should think in the same way of all good literature. But as to the fact that several among the professors of this literature were not prejudiced against Luther, in some instances this was their depravity, and they carried on a truceless war for many years by land and sea against this class of studies that is reviving among us.”

The attitude to dogma in this letter is quite characteristic of the writer: it is also characteristic of all times of stress in theological questions. There is to Erasmus 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 the great mass of doctrine 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.” For the great majority of believers the place of minute and sharply defined doctrines is taken first and last by all those vague and dumb impressions which form such a powerful factor in all the departments of human life. The great question now before Erasmus is not to lay before men a set of minute doctrines, however good, to which they must bring themselves into allegiance by whatever effort. The great matter is rather to bring men into a condition of life in which they can corroborate these doctrines from their own experience. Erasmus shares the doubt which searches, not the doubt which denies. There is need of dogma, there is a Christian truth in Christianity; only instead of placing it all at the outset the greater part of it is to be placed at the end. Instead of deriving the Christian life from it, it is itself largely the product of the Christian life. In great part it is the special work of the intellect reflecting upon the life already existing, examining its foundations, its nature, and its elements. That life contains as one of its factors an intellectual element, an irreducible minimum, at least of doctrine: and so far doctrine is primary. But these ideas, really indispensable to the existence of religious life, are relatively few in number. By far the greater part of theology consists in the work of the intellect on these primary ideas and on life in general.

To a dogmatist like Luther such ideas were unacceptable. Erasmus was still troubled by the De Servo Arbitrio. He knew only too well that his Hyperaspistes was not an exhaustive refutation of the able book of his opponent. George of Saxony implored him to continue a labour so brilliantly begun. Unfortunately for himself he yielded, and in April 1527 he set to work, and on September 1, 1527, the second part of the Hyperaspistes appeared. The horror of the destruction wrought is evident. Luther has not been able to preserve the indispensable favour of princes, bishops, and true theologians. He has destroyed without knowing how to replace. The constitutions of the Church, unction, tonsure, Mass, song, churches, sacred images, liturgical vestments, ceremonies, schools, studies, letters, all have been displaced. What is there to succeed? For lack of peaceful reform, revolts and repressions are equally horrible, and does not the monkish yoke threaten to be heavier than ever? Whatever might be the value of his theories, he declared solemnly that he abided by the judgment of the Church, “ready to correct everything which departed from the truth.”

In a letter written the day the second part of the Hyperaspistes was published Erasmus analysed for the benefit of Charles V the difficulties and dangers of his situation. “He had drawn upon himself the hatred of the whole Lutheran party,” and his life was not safe if the Emperor refused his protection. The reply of Charles was gratifying: “Thanks to you alone, Christianity has arrived at results to which the emperors, the popes, the princes, and all the efforts of learned men have been unable to attain.”

To Duke George Erasmus says: “The Emperor and Ferdinand seem to look to severity as if to a sacred anchor, and indeed they provoke to this those who wish any amount of licence granted to them under the name of evangelicism. I fear that things may go from bad to worse. The lust for plunder will rouse many even against the innocent, and anybody who possesses anything will be in danger. Those who have nothing will profit from the evils of others, as usually happens in war. And hence there will follow general chaos. If this evil cannot be suddenly removed, at least it must be skilfully mitigated for a time, until the disease will admit of medical treatment. It is hard to have recourse to amputation and cauterizing when the greater part of the system is impregnated with the malady. The medical treatment is fatal which destroys more than it cures. If anything is at fault in any part, it should be removed by prudent moderation in accordance with the sanction and authority of princes, then the result, I think, would be less fraught with bloodshed. I pray that He who knows what is best for mankind may deign to infuse into the minds of the princes such counsels as may restore to us true piety together with holy harmony, since I see nothing else now remains for us save prayer.”

That it required courage to pen this letter is obvious. It was not long since a Florentine preacher of reform had been done to death. The Inquisition was at work and its arm was long. The factious and the powerful could not feel satisfaction when they knew that denunciations of party and of vested interests formed the staple of the letters of the humanist. Nothing but an urgent sense of duty made him address popes and prelates, kings and princes on the necessity of reform. He at least made an attempt to escape from the traditions of the past by which all are enveloped. A man whose sole desire was to live on terms of intimacy with great men in Church and State would never have imperilled his position by writing such letters and, above all, by continuing to write them. Sheer timidity or self-caution was not the motive that dictated them. The influence of the scholar’s life is not to be entirely measured by his published work. It was not only that he freely communicated his knowledge or advice, or issued his books freely. His learning was an instrument for throwing steady light on the controversies of the time, and such an instrument exercised an influence not devoid of effect. The sixteenth century was not only an age of revolution, it was also an age of preparation for the future growth of toleration.

To Archbishop Warham Erasmus complains of his persecution by the monks, and insists on his services to theology. If princes do not use efforts to restrain the disorders of the world, they will not be able to do so when they would. He writes to More even in a more despondent tone. Things now, he believes, are in such a state that he must look out for a grave where he may rest after death in quiet, since that is not possible in this life. The heresy of the Anabaptist is more widely diffused than any one suspects.

Sometimes hopeful, sometimes despairing, Erasmus on the whole seemed throughout the year 1528 to be less perplexed than he had been for some time. His disgust towards the movement was not lessened by the tales he heard about the apostate priests and the religious. “They seek,” he told Pirkheimer, “two things, an income and a wife; besides, the Evangel affords them freedom to live as they please.” In a letter to the Strassburg preacher, Martin Bucer, he says, “Those who have given up the recital of the canonical hours do not now pray at all; many who have laid aside the pharisaical dress are really worse than they were before.” He admits that “the first thing that makes me draw back from this company is that I see so many among this troop becoming altogether estranged from the purity of the Gospel. Some I knew as excellent men before they joined this sect; what they are now, I know not, but I hear that many have become worse and none better.” The Lutheran cause is prospering “because priests and monks take wives contrary to human laws, or at any rate contrary to their vow. Look around and see whether their marriages are more chaste than those of others upon whom they look as heathen.”

To Queen Catherine he writes that the nobility of her birth, her exalted rank, and her marriage with a prosperous sovereign like Henry VIII are as nothing in contributing to her happiness compared with her gifts. It is most rare to find a lady, born and brought up at Court, placing all her hopes and solace in devotion and the reading of the Scripture. Would that others, widows at all events, would take example from her, and not widows only, but unmarried ladies, by devoting themselves to the service of Christ! He is a solid rock, the spouse of all pious souls, and nearer to each than the nearest tie. The soul that is devoted to this husband is not less grateful in adversity than in prosperity. He knows what is expedient for all, and is often more propitious when He changes the sweet for the bitter. Every one must take up his cross; there is no entrance into heavenly glory without it. These are the blessings which none can take away.

Erasmus continued to expose the grievances in ecclesiastical life and to demand in dignified language a reformation. In his Diatribe, 1524, he declared that he submitted himself in all to the authority of the Church. His attitude to dogma he clearly defines, “On all points which are of the faith, I have a free conscience towards God.” The popes were anxious to secure his enormous influence on behalf of orthodoxy. A Spanish theologian, who had composed an Antapologia against the humanist to reinforce the attack of the Prince of Carpi, informs us that Clement VII glanced through his book, remarking to him that “the Holy See has never set the seal of its approbation on the spirit of Erasmus, but it has spared him in order that he might not separate himself from the Church and embrace the cause of Lutheranism to the detriment of our interests.” Paul III desired to make him a cardinal, but the scholar refused this dignity on account of his age.

Luther was well aware that Erasmus frequently protested that he had never any intention of writing anything contrary to revelation and the common faith of Christendom; that he submitted himself to the decisions of the popes; and that he was ready to accept what the Church taught even though he might not understand the reasons and be personally inclined to embrace the opposite. The two differed in such fundamental matters as the effect of the fall of Adam, the meaning of justification and the free will of man. To Michel, Bishop of Langres, Erasmus offers an explanation which he finds in the duality of the reformer. “In Luther,” he testifies, “I find to my surprise two different persons. One writes in such a way that he seems to breathe the apostolic spirit, the other makes use of such unbecoming invective as to appear to be altogether unmindful of it.” To another bishop he writes in a similar strain, “Whatever of good there may be in Luther’s teaching and exhortations we shall put in practice, not because it emanates from him, but because it is true and agrees with Holy Scripture.”

To the Elector Hermann, Archbishop of Cologne, he delivers his soul. “Everything was progressing favourably but for the seditious wickedness of certain persons, who, while endeavouring suddenly to give a new world to us by diverse opinions and contentious teachings, almost tore to pieces the very fabric of the community and upset the harmony of the Church. And thereby the results of so many weary nights of toil and sweat endured by me for so many years almost went for nothing. But my own individual inconvenience would give me but little concern if the public weal did not similarly suffer, and, above all, the glory of Christ, which ought to be the one great aim and object of all our actions. For nothing can be really prosperous or truly happy in human affairs unless that which Christ worketh in us, so that our human affections being dormant our will may be submissive to His will. Already there was more than enough of those maladies even if the implacable hate of the monks had not been added, which, though it had brought such an amount of calamity into the world, yet day by day was becoming more intense, threatening to culminate in utter chaos and confusion, unless some divine intervention, like a deus ex machina, suddenly appearing on the scene, bring about some unexpected exit to this stormy tragedy. We, however, in this scene of turmoil, in circumstances that are almost desperate, since no other course is open save prayer, still cling to the wreckage of the ship, in the hope that Christ may somewhere show us poor storm-tossed mariners some port of security. Nor do I altogether cast away all hope, if God in whose hands are the hearts of kings may deign to control the minds of the princes, so that they may deem it a far nobler thing to conquer anger than to vanquish an enemy, and a much safer thing to establish a kingdom by kindness than by force: and that a reputation for mercy is a more potent influence in extending the boundaries of one’s sway than a reputation for force.

“Peace cannot be achieved all in a moment in a scene of general and widespread perturbation and confusion, but a truce is possible, at least for some years. Meantime it would be possible to consider calmly how to mend matters. What I am afraid of just now is that we may have a kind of Cadmean victory, as they call it, a victory which is as woeful to the conquerors as to the conquered. But here, as I have said already, I can do nothing but pray. I have again and again urged the Emperor to peace. He thus replies in his last letter: ‘There is no proper reason why any person should doubt that we have strenuously put forth all the efforts which were in our power to secure peace in each state, while as to what efforts we shall put forth in future we prefer to show these by actions.’

“These words do not savour very much of peace. But although a great war draws in its train all manner of maladies and woes, these nevertheless render people afflicted rather than impious. The crash of opinions and beliefs is more serious; it robs us of our good feeling, and this is the most precious of all things. And in this case the obstinacy of the contending parties is almost greater than that of the monarchs at war: and by a curious kind of fatality it so happens that no persons injure a cause—be it this or that cause—more than the very persons who seem to themselves to be most heroically championing it. For some persons draw so fiercely the rope of contention in opposite directions that, as the proverb puts it, the rope breaks when it is overstrained and both parties fall on their backs. It is not necessary to question into everything, much less to pronounce judgment on everything. It is better to treat of those matters which have a particular bearing on evangelical teaching. The world has certain laws and rights of its own, the schools have their exercise-grounds for discussion: but let nothing be delivered to the people except that which is not to be questioned, which is necessary for the working of faith, which conduces to pious living. To take one example: Some persons emphasize the confessional too much, others on the contrary want to do away with it altogether, though there might be a mean between the two extremes. Likewise certain persons have carried the Mass so far that it almost becomes with unlearned and sordid priests, or rather sacrificers, a source of profit and ground of confidence for evil-living men: others again would totally abrogate it. But here, too, there is room for moderation whereby we might have a more holy and pure Mass, and yet might avoid having none at all. In a similar way certain persons in their extreme and superstitious worship of spirit almost obscure the worship of Christ. Some persons strive utterly to overthrow all the status of the monks: others on the contrary lay too much emphasis on their constitutions, ceremonies, titles, and kinds of vesture.

“In these and all other matters it might be brought about by prudent moderation that we might hold the dogma of faith more certainly and better; that the confession might be improved and made less irksome; the Mass might be more sacred and more venerated, we might have priests and monks, if fewer in number, yet certainly better. But although this world-wide storm or tempest causes me excruciating agony, nevertheless there is still some residue of hope in me, that it will yet happen Divine Providence will overrule these storms to bring about a good result. To this end the prudent moderation of the chief priest specially contributes a moderation which may so far restrain seditious impiety that regard for true piety may be permanently established, that is, if the tares are rooted out in such a way that the wheat is not rooted up with them. That would be more easy to accomplish if private reasonings were laid aside and we were all to look to one great objective, that is, the glory of Christ. At present most persons look after their own interests, and so it happens that it is not well with us either in private or public. We lay the blame on one another, though this world-wide cataclysm may be the hand of God inviting all men to correct their lives. If we all flee for refuge to Him, He Himself might easily turn this awful storm in human affairs into a great calm. But upon these matters I have dwelt at too great length to your Excellency, who must have a far more correct view of them than I can possibly have—whose most moderate prudence and most prudent moderation methinks I not only have known from the testimony of men, but also from actual experience.”

This detached reformer is careful to let Duke George know that “in this matter I am acting in the interests not of the heretics, but of orthodoxy and statesmanship. We see how widely the contagion has spread. But if we press matters to the extremity of the sword a great many pious people will be involved in the resulting cataclysm: and the result of violence is doubtful. If I indulged in the ‘natural man’—that is, if I hated Lutherans as they hate me, I should urge the princes to severity with all my strength; but Christian charity and considerations of humanity dictate a different course. We must not always consider the deserts of the heretic; the interests of Christendom must be considered too. I agree that we always bind the converted man to better counsels, but a prince has his own rights too. The Donatists were utter heretics, but Augustine pleaded anxiously that they should not be put to death.

“It is no good for me or any one to try to remove the reproach of severity from the Emperor and Ferdinand if in the same dispatch I suffer myself to be provoked to severity by the wickedness of heretics. The aggressor deserves severity in this case, I have felt none of the severity of the war, although if it were possible I should wish that Christian concord should unite the hearts of the monks, and I have often urged the Emperor to this effect. If this may not be, I shall not cease to pray that the Emperor and Ferdinand may conquer with the least possible expenditure of blood. I long for a happier result than this prelude seems to promise. Certainly the rash wickedness of many has been a dreadful injury to the peace of the Church. If the bishops and priests—nay if we all turned with all our heart to the Lord, understanding that this is the hand of God, He would remove His anger from us, and His mercy would give a happy end to these disturbances. It is His wish to cure rather than to kill the erring, and carefulness lest severity should create an evil worse than the disease is careful political foresight, not sympathy with heresy.”

The outlook, then, is not unhopeful. “Luther is now silent. Melanchthon preaches mildness,” he tells Pirkheimer. “The Lutheran fever is at present mitigating in fury,” he informs Gattinara. He affirms that he was the first who, almost single-handed, opposed Luther, and that he had proved a true prophet in predicting that the drama which the world had greeted with such warm applause would have a sad termination. In one of his Apologies he maintains of his earlier writings that “neither Lutherans nor anti-Lutherans could clearly show him to have called in question any single dogma of the Church.” Numbers had tried hard to do so, yet they had merely succeeded in bringing forward affinities, congruities, grounds of scandal and suspicion, and not a few big fibs. Indeed, “some theologians, in their hatred of Luther, condemn good and pious sayings which do not emanate from him at all, but from Christ and the Apostles. Thus, owing to their malice and stupidity, many remain in the party adverse to the Church who would otherwise have forsaken it, and many join it who would otherwise have kept aloof.” The invective employed is harming not Luther, but the Church, but even such invective will not induce him to embrace the cause of the reformer.

He tells Longland that he has received by Quirius his two letters. According to his advice he follows the example of St. Augustine in revising his writings. He defends his Colloquies and other works at some length, and exposes the malevolence and ill-faith of the monks. The Dominicans and the Franciscans have been more bitter of late, and are proceeding to exercise their tyranny on an innocent man for saying that the expense laid out on a monastery had better been bestowed on the poor; and on two others for merely eating flesh in Lent. He thinks it would be conducive to the concord of the Church if the immense diversity of rubrics, vestments, and rites were done away with, and monks were brought more completely under the authority of the bishops. He professes his adherence to the Catholic Church against the Lutherans. His correspondent’s friend, Aldridge, has undertaken much labour on his account in collating manuscripts, and he begs the bishop will repay him.

Erasmus still pleaded for reform, and his dislike of Luther did not make him close his eyes to the good aspects of the reformation. He owned that on several points the Lutheran doctrines were excellent, and that he was ready to conform himself to them when they were in agreement with the Gospel. This was a generous admission to make in 1528. As for heresies the axe and the fire could not end them. Such admissions did not make him loved by either side. That “all Germany detested him,” he tells Pistorius. Vainly he published replies and apologies against the Spanish monks, against Beda, against Gerard of Nimeguen, and against Eppendorf. The orthodox party quoted the Paraphrases or the Colloquies. The fire of criticism once more became so fierce that he told the Prince of Carpi that his babbling pen had sometimes made him outrun discretion, and that had he foreseen the turn of events he would have safeguarded some of his affirmations. On the other hand Luther assailed him as an Epicurean, a viper, an atheist. It seemed henceforth allowable to insult, Erasmus complains to Fonseca, one formerly regarded as the star of Germany.

To Louis Ber he confesses, “With thoughts of this kind I easily shake off the weaknesses of the flesh, which attack me harmlessly sometimes, with the result that I can better understand what I hear, that Arius, Tertullian, Wyclif, and some others have separated from the communion of the Christian flock owing to the envy of the clergy and the wickedness of some monks, and have put forth their private grievance to the harm of the Church. I had rather lay down life and fame than descend to such wickedness—a feeling, I think, which will not easily slip into heresy. Would that I were allowed at the cost of my life to heal these evils of the Church! For, as I candidly answered to some who libellously quoted my writings under the pretence of zeal, the desire of revenge has not driven me to this, but the zeal for piety against eager wickedness. It is one thing to see heresy: it is another to wipe off the reproach of heresy. One may be silent against other forms of abuse, but not in the charge of impiety; if you have a conscience free from guilt, St. Paul orders you to make confession with the mouth unto salvation. But it is a kind of denying not to have a tongue against opposing heresy.

“And it is clear how frivolous are the causes why these men began to attack me. I introduced the classics and cultured literature to the great advantage of theology, which they now pretend to be on the side of, although for forty years they have left no stone unturned to drive them out and crush them in the bud.… I never dreamed of abolishing Mass. Concerning the Eucharist, I see no end to discussion; yet I cannot be and never shall be persuaded that Christ, who is the Truth, who is Love, should have suffered His beloved spouse, the Church, to cling so long to hateful error, as to worship wheaten bread instead of Himself. Concerning the consecrating words, I confess I have often longed to be more fully enlightened. But in scruples of this kind I easily agree with the judgment of the Church Catholic. The dogma that any one has the power of consecrating, absolving, and ordaining, I have always regarded as clearly absurd. I have always kept clear of sects and parties, nor have I up till now ever attached myself to any faction, although many causes impelled me thither, nor have I ever gathered any disciples, but handed over to Christ whomsoever I had. For how can we cure the disease with what caused the disease? Each one pulls his own rope; let us rather pull the same rope—to wit, Christ’s. It is not proper for any one to withdraw from the holy dogmas of the Church because of the wicked behaviour of men; but it is the part of Christian prudence to cut out the root and source of these evils, so that they may never have another chance of coming to life. My private misfortune I bear with equanimity because I know it will not be long-lived. For now I feel and know that my last hour is nigh; but I cannot bear calmly the utter ruin of the Church. If this storm crushes only those who have given cause for punishment it would be endurable. But how many pious priests, holy monks, and unstained virgins are treated in unworthy ways? And if we look at these beginnings, we cannot but expect worse things to follow unless the goodness of a kindly Providence thinks fit to avert them, which I trust will be our salvation if with sincere hearts we take refuge therein.”

To Christopher of Utenheim he explains that “there are various degrees of error and heresy; there is a great difference between the person who has been misled by argument and him who maintains impious dogma with wicked obstinacy. Again, there is a difference between the simple dissentient and the man who gathers a heretical party to disturb the public peace. It is a new precedent that a man should be burned merely for error—and I know no previous examples. And yet I would approve the devout mind of the French, if it were as great in spiritual judgment as it is biased towards superstition. Certainly up to this they have shown themselves obedient to the Roman pontiff. They deserve good rulers: for they obey whatever kind they get, and it is better to make mistakes in this direction than to indulge in boundless licence, as we see happen in some German states in which the Pope is Antichrist, the cardinals tools of the Antichrist, the bishops worms, the priests swine, the monasteries tabernacles of Satan, the kings tyrants, the governance of affairs in the hands of evangelical people, more ready to fight than dispute. So much I wrote to Berquin, who is happy, I trust, in departing with a good conscience. To be condemned, hanged, cut to pieces, burned, beheaded—is the common lot of saint and sinner alike. To condemn, to cut to pieces, to crucify, to burn, to behead, are the normal use of pirates, as well as legitimate judges. Men’s judgments are bewildering. Happy is he who is absolved of God.”

In 1529 Erasmus published an edition of Seneca’s works. In his Paraphrases and other works he had outlined a theory of progress. Did he dwell on that splendid prophecy Seneca gives in his Natural Questions? The editor’s tone is not sympathetic, and it may well be that the evolution theory which the moralist sketched failed to attract Erasmus. The Latin author enables us to connect the names of Erasmus and Calvin, for the first literary work the French thinker gave to the world was his commentary on the De Clementia. But Calvin, unlike Erasmus, is an Austinian.

The cosmopolitan scholar found a refuge in his literary work from the maledictions Pierre le Couturier and Beda poured on him so lavishly. Pierre le Cornu cried out in Paris, “Thou shalt tread down the lion and the dragon, the lion Luther and the dragon Erasmus.”

The process of treading down Luther, if not Erasmus, was undertaken at the Diet of Spires, 1529. In his brief of October 1528, Clement VII had requested the Emperor to provide a remedy for the troubled condition of Germany. On his way to the Diet the Bishop of Constance had met Erasmus, and from the conversation the latter expected nothing but war and violence. Since the meeting of three years ago the orthodox party had been gaining ground. Among the new supporters was Duke Henry of Mecklenburg, and the Elector Palatine was inclined to agree with him. The Roman Catholic body was solid: the Protestant was divided.

Charles V, through his commissioners, declared that he abolished “by his Imperial and absolute authority” the Spires recess of 1526, which, he said, had been the cause of “much ill-counsel and misunderstanding.” This was the clause on which the Lutherans relied when they founded their territorial churches. The acquiescence of the majority of the Diet in this action left the reforming side wholly without the authority of the law for what they had done. It declared that those states of the Empire that had hitherto executed the Worms decree should continue to do so; that in other states no further innovations should be made on pain of the Imperial ban. It forbade any prince or city to deprive any priest or religious corporation of authority or revenue, thus destroying any possibility of creating or keeping up Lutheran churches. It declared that sects denying the Sacrament of the true Body and Blood of Christ—this was specially aimed at the Zwinglians—should not be tolerated, and that the Anabaptists were everywhere to be suppressed; and finally it provided for a censorship of books. No prince should take the subjects of another under his protection. In effect, the result was that the Roman Catholics received toleration in the Lutheran districts, while the Lutherans received no toleration in Roman Catholic districts. No one, for example, was to be prevented from hearing Mass.

The Lutheran princes and cities, especially the southern towns, were intensely alarmed by this ordinance. They did not relish the prospect of the restoration of the mediæval ecclesiastical rule, and with it the right of the bishop to deal with the preachers in his diocese. They commissioned Georg Vogler, the Chancellor of the Margrave of Brandenburg, to draw up a formal reply. This document, presented to the Diet on April 19, 1529, is the Protest from which the popular name of the reforming party is derived. The legal argument is that the unanimous decision of the Diet of 1526 cannot be rescinded by the vote of the majority at another Diet. The second reason is that the recess contains matters that “concern the glory of God and the welfare and salvation of the souls of every one of us.” “In matters concerning the honour of God, the welfare and salvation of our souls, each stands for himself and must give account before God. Therefore in this sphere no one can make it another’s duty to do or decide less or more.” When forced to make their choice between obedience to the Emperor and obedience to God, they were obliged to choose the latter. They appealed, from the wrongs done to them at the Diet, to the Emperor, to the next free General Council of Christendom, or to an ecclesiastical congress of the German nation. The Lutherans refused to listen to any proposals for universal tolerance: their position was Cujus regio, ejus religio. The Protest was signed by the Elector John of Saxony, the Margrave Joachim of Brandenburg, Dukes Ernest and Francis of Brunswick-Lüneburg, Prince Wolfgang of Anhalt, and the Landgrave Philip of Hesse, the political genius of the evangelical princes. The fourteen cities which adhered were Strassburg, Nürnberg, Ulm, Constance, Lindau, Memmingen, Kempten, Nördlingen, Heilbronn, Reutlingen, Isny, St. Gallen, Weissenburg, and Windsheim. At the Diet of Worms, a monk had asserted the rights of conscience. At the Diet of Spires, for the first time in history, a body of men had also asserted the rights of conscience. The second assertion had behind it more than one-third the power and wealth of Germany. A minority of German states held the position that when the majority oppressed them they could shelter themselves behind the laws of the Empire. The principle was not a new one, but it was one that ultimately meant the use of force.

Erasmus discerns this, the employment of brute strength, when he tells Tunstall on January 31, 1530, that to all appearance the long war of words and writings will terminate in blows. But for his soul’s health he would rather be in the camp from which he fled; but Heaven forbid, that, for the little life remaining to an old man with a stone in his bladder, which is certain death, he should desert the unity of the Church. As to what ministers may decree concerning his writings, that is their affair. If the rulers of the Church were men like Augustine, Erasmus would agree with them excellently; but if Augustine himself were to write now what he has written, or what the age requires, he would be as badly thought of as Erasmus. It is true what Tunstall says, that fire is not put out by fire; but it is not right to endure a charge of impiety. He can adduce hundreds of passages, both in Augustine and St. Paul, which would now be denounced as heresies. Monks and schoolmen are deceived if they think this is the way to secure the peace of the Church. They throw oil upon the flames. He does not congratulate More, although he does not grieve for him. England he does congratulate, and himself not a little. He has translated three homilies of Chrysostom from a manuscript by Tunstall’s advice, which he regretted, as he saw nothing there of Chrysostom. This is not the only work on which he is engaged. He speaks of other works in preparation. He thinks the faults of Œcolampadius are more from hurry than want of skill. He gives his opinion on the real presence, with some remarks upon Origen. He has answered the objection of the Bishop of Lincoln respecting his Colloquies, and denies any intention of turning the fasts and ceremonies of the Church into ridicule. He complains that the Observants had employed a young member of their Order to insult him. If he could get rid of the stone he could easily despise all other troubles. He trusts that the sects will be kept in order by the Emperor. He sends his compliments to the Chancellor (More) and thanks him for his present.

The Imperial policy for the moment was wise and moderate. Perhaps the promise of the first days of the Renaissance might be at last fulfilled, the age of gold realized. The hope, however, disappeared as the scholar perceived that civil war had not ceased. On March 7, 1530, Erasmus wrote to Cardinal Sadoleto, the Melanchthon of Romanism: “I feel as if I had to do with a mad and wretched riot of country people, or as if I were not the first who attacked this seditious anarchy, in moderate terms, I admit, but more sensibly and prudently for the keeping of the peace of the Church than these men who think to put the fire out by blows and threats and cruelty. I refrain from names, for in these there are some united to me by a deeper than the earthly tie, whom nevertheless I perceive to have accomplished nothing but to tie up themselves and their communities in tighter bonds, and they do so more every day. May God grant, Your Highness, that I turn out a false prophet. But yet if you should see, what I hate, furious tumults arising over the earth, not so much terrible to Germany as harmful to the Church, remember that this was predicted by Erasmus. The first mistake was to neglect Luther with his propositions on Indulgence. The second is not to take action through the monks who are hateful almost to the whole world, not with helpless abuse to the common people, nor with burning of men and books, but with books that would have a circulation among the learned. Finally it is desirable to be politic and endure them for a while, as we have endured the Bohemians and the Jews. Time itself often supplies a remedy to incurable evils. Constantly preaching those things, I have been so misunderstood that I am represented as ‘a supporter of heretics.’ The diplomatist imagined he was doing something splendid, who, wherever Charles went, filled the whole place with the fire and smoke of books, threatening everybody, and it was not his fault that he was prevented from persecuting, and Erasmus would have been destroyed, if the fool had got the ear of any kings. The other, who, although not personally known to me, was known by reputation as a scholar, and dear on that account, declaimed everywhere in Rome against Erasmus as a child, unlearned and with no sense. After I had argued with him in courteous and respectful terms, he answered in a regular and careful treatise, which he sent to me before it was in a finished state. From this I easily saw that the man had not read my works, but was writing what he had heard at second hand, and that he was not writing of his own initiative at all. When this work came to me at Paris, finished, with some additions, I wrote civilly to the author, being very anxious, as far as the nature of the case permitted, that he should suppress nothing, even expressions of just disapproval, which would do his reputation harm, assuring him that the friendliness that he had expressed towards me in the end of the book was shared by me also.”

The kinship in soul the scholar felt for the Melanchthon of Romanism, he felt more deeply for Melanchthon himself. As Erasmus was the preceptor of Europe, Melanchthon was the preceptor of Germany. Both were humanists to the core. Erasmus felt warmly attracted by the grave courtesy, the irresistible charm of Melanchthon. Gentleness and sympathy are marked traits in the character of each. At moments when an instant decision was wanted they were apt to fail their followers. Both loved peace and devised means to preserve it. Both hated controversy, for did not the fires of controversy destroy the calmness which the pursuit of truth demanded? As Erasmus was a mediator in learning, Melanchthon was a mediator in theology. The desire—a desire mixed perhaps with pusillanimity—to find the golden mean proved the guiding motive of both men. It is significant that neither Erasmus nor Melanchthon arrived at his theological standpoint by violent struggle. Prudence, moderation, and conservatism were their distinguishing qualities. Both matured early and continued their labours to the very end. Their character—not their will—developed while they were young men. Though they possessed many disciples, they owned no devotees. They were out of touch with the needs of the ordinary man.

Interested as they were in all learning, the main study of Erasmus and Melanchthon lay particularly in the classics. The past fascinated them, and gave them that reverential attitude which on the whole dominated them. Obedience to the powers that be was a sacred duty, incumbent on all. Melanchthon was as devoted to the Emperor as Erasmus to the Pope. Scholasticism repelled both men. Melanchthon, however, was fairer than Erasmus in his estimate of the worth of Aristotle. Curiously enough, both men were as attracted to astrology as Roger Bacon. They edited books, for they were firmly persuaded that all hope of fruitful knowledge lay in a return to the sources. The Novum Instrumentum of Erasmus may be set alongside the Lutheran translation of the Bible, which owed so much to the genius of Melanchthon. Width of reading and breadth of learning characterized the two scholars. Their versatility deprived them of the capacity of leadership, for how could they think that their side, and their side alone, was the absolutely right one? Great as was their industry, unrivalled as was their capacity for taking pains, their industry and their capacity did not equal in their immediate practical effect the results achieved by the narrowness and the intensity of Luther. The love of compromise was natural to Erasmus and Melanchthon: it was sometimes a way to evade the difficulties of the day. The Confession of Augsburg attests how far the latter was willing to go in his attempts to conciliate Rome. Both were essentially layminded, for Erasmus by papal permission resigned his Orders. Their influence over the university education of Europe is incalculable: both prepared the means for the advance in secular knowledge. The professor’s chair, the study, formed the centre of their rule.

The ideal of Erasmus and Melanchthon was a far-reaching system, a method, embracing all that was best in the Renaissance and the Reformation. Reason was, in their opinion, as necessary as faith to the member of the Catholic Church: ancient philosophy and Christian creed were both required. Revelation required natural reason and natural reason required revelation. Both could separate the unimportant from the important, the unessential from the essential—qualities more uncommon than people suppose. The ideals of the Middle Ages had become obsolete and impossible: it was the task of Erasmus and Melanchthon to render new ideals possible, to prevent their becoming utterly chaotic. It is difficult to overrate the efforts of Melanchthon in preventing the direst confusion on the side of Reform. He resisted the logical precision of Carlstadt just as he resisted the countless paradoxes of Brenz. He opposed the exaggerations of Flacius just as fervently as he opposed the assertions of Amsdorf, that inter alia good works furnished a positive hindrance to salvation. Balance was as much his characteristic as it was that of Erasmus. Knowledge was an ennobling, a refining influence, as it led men to Him who is its true source. For the two humanists Christ formed the sum and substance of true theology. To both there was a growth in revelation, because the Old Testament prepared the way for the grander revelation of the New.

The differences between Erasmus and Melanchthon are no less unmistakable than the resemblances. Though both shrank from active life, it is clear that the energy of Luther forced Melanchthon to forsake the life of a recluse. What the association of Keble, Pusey and Newman meant to the Oxford Movement, the association of Luther and Melanchthon meant to the German Movement. Melanchthon cared more for St. Austin than Erasmus, which involves the conclusion that he realized the power of sin more deeply. On the other hand, Erasmus was more convinced of the moral freedom of man, more certain that toleration was the right principle, than his friend.

The uneasiness of Erasmus and Melanchthon at the time in which their lot was cast is obvious. They realized that they, like hapless Prometheus, had been bound fast by Fate. The growing confusion, the endless disputation, the religious upheaval, and the depressing feeling that learning was thrust into the background—all these factors made both welcome the end when it came. Melanchthon looked forward to that light “where God is all in all and where there is no more sophistry, no more misrepresentation.”

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