Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Erasmus of Rotterdam

"When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes"
- Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466 – 1536)
The quote above has always been one of my favorites but I had no clue who Erasmus was. He wrote much and is much quoted, see

Other famous quotes include:
  • "In the country of the blind the one eyed man is king."
  • "Prevention is better than cure."
  • "To know nothing is the happiest life." (Ignorance is bliss)
  • "Women, can't live with them, can't live without them."
So who is this Erasmus of Rotterdam? He was in his day a hero and villain but now mostly forgotten. In his home town the University and High School have been named in his honor but in 2003, a poll showed that most Rotterdammers believed Erasmus to be the designer of the local "Erasmus Bridge".

Erasmus was a Dutch Renaissance humanist ("Prince of the Humanists"), Catholic priest, and a theologian. He was excellent at Greek and Latin and translated many works such as Saint Ambrose, Aristotle, Saint Augustine, Saint Basil, Saint John Chrysostom, Cicero and Saint Jerome. Ten columns of the catalogue of the British Library are taken up with the bare enumeration of Erasmus's works and their subsequent reprints. He corresponded with more than five hundred men in the worlds of politics and of thought.

Erasmus led a "normal" though busy life as a translator until 1514 when he decided to produce a new and definitive Latin translation of the New Testament (he despised the poor "Vulgate" Latin in use up to that time). He gathered all the Latin and Greek Bibles he could find and started comparing them. He "corrected" many mistranslations and to prove that he was right when challenged, published the Greek alongside the Latin for scholars to compare. He raised questions about some practices of the Catholic Church based upon mistranslations.

Martin Luther was inspired by Erasmus's translation and observations and a year later the Reformation began. Initially Erasmus was sympathetic to Luther's criticisms, describing him as "a mighty trumpet of gospel truth" and admitting that, "It is clear that many of the reforms for which Luther calls are urgently needed.” For this Erasmus was an early hero of the Reformation. BUT he never left the Catholic Church and never gave his full support to Luther. For this he was vilified by the Reformation after his death.

"We are dealing with this: Would a stable mind depart from the opinion handed down by so many men famous for holiness and miracles, depart from the decisions of the Church, and commit our souls to the faith of someone like you who has sprung up just now with a few followers, although the leading men of your flock do not agree either with you or among themselves – indeed though you do not even agree with yourself, since in this same Assertion you say one thing in the beginning and something else later on, recanting what you said before."
-Erasmus to Luther on why he remains Catholic
Likewise the Catholic Church praised Erasmus while he lived because he criticized Luther. Moderate Catholics appreciated that he had been a leading figure in attempts to reform the Church from within. But by 1560 the Pope blamed Erasmus for having "laid the egg that hatched the Reformation". All of his works were placed on the Index of Prohibited Books by Paul IV.

Bottom Line

During the Reformation Erasmus refused to takes sides. He wanted Reform but ony from within the Church. The Protestants would despise him for criticizing Luther. The Catholic Church would reject him for not criticizing Luther strongly enough. No one likes a fence-sitter.

KJV Revelation 3:15-16 I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.

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